CHARLESTON, S.C. — After nearly a week of painful testimony that vividly re-created the massacre at this city’s famed Mother Emanuel church, it took jurors about two hours Thursday to convict Dylann Roof in his federal hate crimes trial.
With Roof’s guilt effectively unquestioned, this verdict was seen as likely, and the trial largely hinged on what happens next. Mirroring what happened during the Boston Marathon bombing trial last year — the last case that saw the Justice Department obtain a rare federal death sentence — there was no real question about guilt. Prosecutors played video footage of Roof admitting his guilt to FBI agents, and Roof’s attorneys did not argue that he was innocent.
Instead, the larger question surrounding the trial has focused on the next portion of the case, which will deal with whether Roof is sentenced to death or life in prison.
This sentencing phase is set to begin next month, and it remains far less clear what will happen there, as Roof said Thursday he still intends to represent himself. Federal death sentences are rare, but the government has opted to seek one in this case, even though this decision has caused some unease among relatives of the victims. It is also unclear when and if the government would be able to carry out such a sentence.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel on Thursday dismissed the jurors until the next phase of the trial begins on Jan. 3.
Federal prosecutors had used their emotional closing arguments earlier Thursday to paint a picture of Roof, the 22-year-old who confessed to the shootings, as cruel and calculated. Earlier on Thursday, they read lines from a journal found in his car and the manifesto he posted online, and they told jurors that Roof wanted to incite a race war.
After being welcomed into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s bible study in June 2015, Roof sat among the parishioners and then “executed them because he believes they are nothing but animals,” Nathan Williams, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors.
While 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, was wearing a crisp white shirt and new suit in the image. Both were stained by blood pooling around Pinckney, who had been shot five times in the neck, back and arm. Roof’s grandmother, sitting in the courtroom while the image was displayed, wiped a tear from her eye.
Roof’s attorney, David Bruck, said that the 22-year-old’s actions were clearly senseless, but he described them as the actions of someone unable to perceive the world as it is.
“Why did Roof do this? Why was he motivated?” Bruck said, calling on the jury to try their best to consider who Roof is and what led him to commit such a violent act. He called Roof an immature young man who gave himself over to the “mad idea that he can make things better by executing those kind, virtuous people.”
For Bruck, a widely recognized death-penalty lawyer, his closing arguments Thursday represented perhaps his last chance to address the jurors. Gergel agreed to let Roof represent himself during the penalty portion of the trial, though Bruck and his other attorneys will remain as standby counsel to assist him. After he was convicted, Roof reiterated his desire to represent himself.
While prosecutors will outline the aggravating factors that they believe warrant a death sentence, it is unclear what Roof will do in his own defense. Bruck had previously indicated in a court filing that he would raise the issue of Roof’s mental health, which could be a mitigating factor to avoid a death sentence.
Roof had previously offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but federal authorities are still pursuing a death sentence. He is also facing a potential death sentence in a state trial, set to begin next year, on charges of murder and attempted murder.
It is my hope that the survivors, the families & the people of South Carolina can find some peace in the fact that justice has been served.— Archive: Ambassador Nikki Haley (@AmbNikkiHaley) December 15, 2016
Authorities said that in his FBI interview and manifestos, Roof had said he “had to do it” because he believed nobody was putting a stop to what he had read online about “black-on-white crime.” Roof believed that it was “not too late to take the country back from blacks,” prosecutors said during the trial.
During the closing arguments Thursday, Roof, wearing a dull blue cable-knit sweater and dark gray pants, did not look up while Williams recited details of the case.
“A church is a sanctuary, a place of worship, a place of safety,” Williams told the jurors. Roof shattered that peace, Williams said, with a carefully plotted attack, visiting the church numerous times before the shooting.
Prosecutors had previously said that they believed Roof self-radicalized online, drawing bigoted beliefs from the Internet rather than any personal experiences. They had also said that Roof had two handwritten manifestos along with a list of churches. Williams said Thursday that this was a group of predominantly black churches, and “the one that he chose was at the top of his list.”
“A person’s actions tell us what they are thinking and what is in their heart,” Williams said as photos of Roof’s victims were shown in the court.
Each victim was shown gunned down on the floor of the church’s basement, depicted as they were at the time of their deaths. Above each graphic photo was a portrait of the victims as they were during their lives.
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 others held their heads high, refusing to look away.
One relative groaned and rushed from the courtroom as an image of Tywanza Sanders was shown, his arm outstretched toward Susie Jackson as they lay dead on the church floor. Jackson, the oldest victim at 87 years old, was shot at least 10 times, the most of any victim.
“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 at the time of the shooting and the survivors who took to the witness stand to recount the massacre.
While Williams spoke, Bruck sat low in his chair, his head rested wearily on his fist. He began by apologizing for his soft-spoken nature, asking jurors to give him a signal if his voice dips too low, before asking the jury to try their best to consider who Roof is and what led him to commit such a violent act.
Bruck pointed out that Roof had no long-range plan following the shooting. During a two-hour videotaped confession, Roof told FBI agents that he had saved ammunition to shoot himself once he encountered the police. In Roof’s car, investigators found handwritten notes to his parents, apologizing to his mother and father for what he had done and saying he loved them.
During his statements, Bruck made final attempts to introduce doubt regarding Roof’s mental competence, noting that Roof was unable to recall how many victims he had shot or the duration of the shooting during his confession.
“The fact that one is a racist does not tell you what else is going on,” Bruck said. “And what else is going on is what you should be thinking about.”
Roof was charged last year with hate crimes resulting in death, hate crimes involving attempts to kill, using a firearm during a crime of violence and with obstructing the exercise of religion resulting in death and attempts to kill people.
It took the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing’s case about 11 hours to deliberate before finding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 counts last year. Jurors in Charleston, deliberating on Thursday, needed about two hours to convict Roof on all counts.
This story has been updated since it was first published.