CHARLESTON, S.C. — The room where it happened looks like a million other church basements. Shiny linoleum floors. A drop ceiling. Folding chairs and tables. And, this week, workers hanging festive green and red Christmas decorations.
Mother Emanuel is trying to heal by relying on what the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning calls “an unshakable faith and trust in God.” Parishioners are struggling to recover from what prosecutors call the methodical bloodlust of a ninth-grade dropout radicalized to hate blacks in the septic swamp of the Internet’s white-supremacist fringes.
The brutal night of June 17, 2015, is about to come alive again for the worshipers of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the rest of this historic seaside city, with Wednesday’s scheduled opening statements in the federal hate crimes trial of Dylann Storm Roof.
“The wound is open, the pain will be there, surely. We are taking one day at a time,” Manning said in his basement office, next to the room where nine black men and women, ages 26 to 87, were killed. “Our faith is founded on the fact that God said, ‘Trust me.’ ”
The killings so horrified the nation that President Obama came here and led an emotional memorial service by singing “Amazing Grace.” Now some are questioning the Obama administration’s decision to seek the federal death penalty when Roof, 22, has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, potentially averting a painful trial.
“It’s a political statement as much as anything else and really unnecessary at this point,” said Andrew J. Savage III, a longtime Charleston lawyer here who represents the three survivors of the attack and many family members of the victims.
The Roof trial comes as Charleston is also grappling with the racially charged case of white former police officer Michael Slager, who killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, as he was running away from a traffic stop in April 2015. The judge in Slager’s trial declared a mistrial Monday when jurors said that they could not reach a verdict. Prosecutors have vowed to retry Slager, whose defense attorney is Savage.
Charleston, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, has a long and difficult history with race relations. But the Roof and Slager cases have forced this genteel Southern city that prides itself on politeness and civility to discuss issues of race more openly.
“This has caused an awakening,” said Joseph P. Riley Jr., who retired in January after more than 40 years as the city’s mayor. “We thought we were living in a post-racial society, and this was a hurtful and heartbreaking wake-up. We’re all more aware now.”
Riley, who still chokes up talking about the killings at the church often referred to as “Mother Emanuel,” said they have “caused everyone in this city to talk more fully about matters of race.” He said “new alliances” of lawyers and other professionals have been formed to discuss race, and “we talk to each other, we don’t talk at each other.”
Riley is also leading an effort to build a $75 million International African American Museum on the site of a Charleston wharf where hundreds of thousands of slaves arrived in the United States.
“We will confront this hateful bigotry,” he said.
Roof’s guilt is essentially uncontested. He has offered to plead guilty. The remaining question is his punishment, and the federal government is seeking death — a sentence it pursues in only the most extreme cases, such as that of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced in May that federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty for Roof, who is also scheduled to face a state murder trial in January that potentially carries the death penalty.
The Justice Department’s court filing in the case cited Roof’s planning and premeditation, “animosity towards African Americans” and “lack of remorse” and said he chose a church for his rampage to “magnify the societal impact.”
Lynch made her decision over the objections of some advising her, including William Nettles, then the U.S. attorney in South Carolina, and Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.
Nettles said that because local prosecutors were already seeking the death penalty for Roof, it was unnecessary for the federal government to do the same.
“My view of federalism was that we should be like good dinner guests: We should come when we’re invited, help clean up and leave, and that our role was to do what the state was unwilling or unable to do,” Nettles said in an interview.
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, the government has put just three inmates to death, including McVeigh. There are 62 inmates on federal death row compared with nearly 3,000 awaiting state executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit. The most recent addition to the federal list was Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Despite seeking the death penalty for Roof, the Justice Department has announced what is effectively a moratorium on federal executions while authorities review their policy, and it does not appear it will conclude before the new administration takes over.
Obama has called the death penalty “deeply troubling” but has remained in favor of using it for particularly heinous crimes. President-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been a vocal supporter of the death penalty.
A recent University of South Carolina poll found a racial disparity in views on Roof’s punishment that reflects black distrust of the death penalty, which has been used disproportionately against black defendants. Although Roof is white, the polls found that almost 65 percent of black South Carolina residents said that they thought Roof should not be executed. In the same poll, about 65 percent of whites said that they thought he should.
In Charleston this week, families of the victims were divided about whether Roof should be executed, but most seemed willing to accept whatever justice the courts impose.
Manning, who took over the position held by the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, the first person shot, said the church is opposed to the death penalty on religious grounds, but parishioners also respect “civil law.”
“The government is well within their rights to do what needs to be done,” Manning said. “At the end of the day, we are just looking for justice.”
Steve Schmutz, a lawyer representing family members of three of the victims, said his clients “are trusting the U.S. attorney’s office.”
“The government is going for the death penalty, so they support it,” he said. “If the government hadn’t gone for the death penalty, I think they would have supported that.”
Kevin Singleton, 43, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed, said that he thought executing Roof or sentencing him to life would be a deterrent to “copycats” who might be inspired to do something similar. “Life in prison, the death penalty — at the end of the day, it’s not going to bring anybody back,” he said. “It’s not going to be closure.”
In preliminary hearings, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial and reluctantly agreed to Roof’s “unwise” request to act as his own lawyer. But over the weekend, Roof reversed himself and Gergel agreed to allow him to reinstate his legal team.
Family members had been preparing to be questioned directly by Roof on the witness stand. Savage said that they had viewed it as “their opportunity to look him in the eye” and that they were “not intimidated at all.”
One of those scheduled to testify is Felicia Sanders, who survived the attack by falling on the floor and shielding her 11-year-old granddaughter. Savage said Sanders watched as the gunman killed her aunt, Susie Jackson, 87, and her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26 — the oldest and youngest victims.
Polly Sheppard, a retired nurse, the only other adult survivor, is also slated to testify. Savage said Roof deliberately spared Sheppard that night, because, Roof told her, “I want you to tell the world what happened in here.”
Sanders and Sheppard gave emotional speeches in support of gun-control legislation at last summer’s Democratic National Convention. Sanders quoted from the words her son, Tywanza, said to Roof just before he was killed: “We mean you no harm. You don’t have to do this.”
“Two days later, I forgave the shooter that murdered him,” Sanders told the convention. “Hate destroys those who harbor it. I refuse to let hate destroy me.”
Savage said many family members had trouble accepting that someone as young as Roof could have acted alone. So in mid-October, he said, federal prosecutors invited Sanders, Sheppard and a small group of others to watch a video of Roof’s initial interview with the FBI.
“They were overwhelmed with the hatred he had and what he expressed and his unrepentance,” Savage said. “They almost had a hope that somebody else was involved, in the sense that you didn’t want to attribute such a horrific mind-set to such a young person. The video went a long way to convince them otherwise.”
Aja’ Risher, 32, whose grandmother, Ethel Lance, 70, was killed, said that she is not an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty but that it would be appropriate in Roof’s case.
“I would like for the same mercy to be shown to him that was shown to my grandmother,” she said. “If this case does not warrant a death penalty, then what case would?”
Zapotosky reported from Washington. Mark Berman and Sari Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.