CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann Storm Roof, a ninth-grade dropout who learned to hate black people on the Internet, was convicted Thursday of 33 counts of federal hate crimes for slaughtering nine black parishioners at a church Bible study meeting here last year.
A federal jury took less than two hours to reach its decision, following a seven-day trial in which Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist, chose to remain silent and motionless amid a barrage of testimony and evidence so thorough and devastating that his mother, watching from the third row, suffered a heart attack on the first day.
“He executed them because he believes they are nothing but animals,” prosecutor Nathan Williams said in his closing argument, addressing a somber jury that had seen crime-scene photos of all the dead, including Susie Jackson, 87, the oldest victim, into whom Roof had emptied an entire 11-round magazine from his Glock .45-caliber pistol.
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As Williams spoke, a photograph of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was shown on the screen. The pastor, who had offered Roof a seat next to him at Bible study, was wearing a crisp white shirt and new suit now stained by blood from the five bullet wounds in his neck, back and arm. Roof’s grandmother, sitting in the courtroom while the image was displayed, wiped a tear from her eye.
Judge Richard M. Gergel dismissed the jury for the holidays and told them to return on Jan. 3, when they will hear prosecution and defense arguments about whether Roof should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole. Roof also faces a separate state murder trial in January, which also carries a potential death penalty.
Many friends and relatives of the dead attended the trial, in the historic heart of the city where the Civil War began, and many sat with their eyes closed tight as they listened to the verdict.
“There’s no win in this. We still have grieving families, a grieving community. There’s some closure, but there’s no win in this thing,” said Kevin Singleton, 43, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed. “We just want to move forward and put this behind us and try to get on with our lives. Nothing good came out of any of this.”
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But some allowed themselves a moment of gratitude.
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was among the dead, said she was “overjoyed that this part is done.”
At the moment the verdict was read, she said, the family members “looked at each other with smiles, like, ‘Hallelujah, God is still in the miracle-working business.’ ”
Roof’s guilt in the killings was essentially uncontested; prosecutors showed the jury Roof’s interview with FBI agents in which he calmly confessed to the killings and complained that he was “worn out” after pumping more than 60 bullets into his victims.
Under federal law, he was charged with hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations. He was also charged with attempting to commit those same offenses against two adults and a child who survived.
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His attorney, David Bruck, a death penalty specialist, told the jury he expected them to find Roof guilty, but he repeatedly tried to inject the notion that Roof was mentally or emotionally unstable. He was consistently cut off by Gergel, who said that was relevant only in the penalty phase of the trial.
Roof has said he will represent himself during that phase, and Bruck was apparently trying to help his client in advance of that by giving the jury some justification to spare his life.
“Consider the mad energy, the rationale, the senselessness,” Bruck said as the prosecution mounted objection after objection. “The fact that one is a racist does not tell you what else is going on. And what else is going on is what you should be thinking about.”
The federal death penalty is rarely imposed; the last time was more than a decade ago. Roof had offered to plead guilty and accept life in prison, but the U.S. Justice Department determined that the circumstances were so egregious that they warranted seeking Roof’s execution.
The crime stood as a new and hideous chapter in the long history of racial killings in America. Prosecutors read lines from a journal found in Roof’s car and the manifesto he posted online, and they told jurors that Roof wanted to incite a race war.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Roof chose the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic monument known as Mother Emanuel, because of its spiritual and symbolic importance to the black community.
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Roof told FBI interrogators that he “had to” kill blacks because they rape white women; computer records showed that he had researched “black on white” crime and spent time on white supremacist sites.
He said he chose Mother Emanuel because it was the South’s oldest black church and he “knew that would be a place to get a small amount of black people in one area.”
During the trial, prosecutors documented Roof’s meticulous planning in the seven months leading up to the killings. Data collected from his GPS showed that he had made at least six trips to Charleston, visiting historic plantations and studying the church. He videotaped himself on several occasions taking target practice with his Glock in the back yard of his home.
Photos showing Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag prompted South Carolina officials to remove the flag from the state capitol in Columbia.
“A person’s actions tell us what they are thinking and what is in their heart,” Williams said, citing the “vastness” of his “cold, calculated hatred,” and his “tremendous cowardice” in shooting nine people who had closed their eyes to pray.
“There is no bravery in this defendant. There is no bravery in his actions. But there is bravery in this case,” Williams told the jury before recounting the courage shown by the victims and the two adult survivors who testified.
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As the prosecutor presented his closing, each victim’s body was shown on the floor of the church’s basement, along with smiling portraits of the victims in life.
“What does ‘malice’ mean?” Williams asked the jury. “It means everything you’ve seen in this case.”
Huddled together under blankets in the chilly courtroom, the families of the victims began weeping. Some kept their heads bowed, rocking back and forth, while other held their heads high, refusing to look away. One relative groaned and rushed from the courtroom as an image of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest victim, was shown, his arm outstretched toward Susie Jackson as they lay dead on the church floor.
Singleton said he had initially planned to stay away from court on the day photos of his mother’s body were shown. But in the end, he said, he felt he needed to be there.
“To see your mom face down on the ground, it’s a life-changing experience,” he said. “A part of me regrets seeing it, but I’m glad I did because I needed to have that closure. It’s like a dream. This doesn’t seem real, so I needed something real. I wanted to have that connection with my mom.”
Sullivan reported from Washington.