CHARLESTON, S.C. — A federal jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death on Tuesday for killing nine black parishioners during a massacre inside a church here in 2015.
Relatives of the victims said the decision was the just outcome.
“Justice was served,” said Kevin Singleton, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed. “It still doesn’t change anything for the families, but I hope it can be a deterrent in the future.”
“I didn’t think the verdict would affect me the way it has; I haven’t stopped crying,” said Aja Risher, granddaughter of victim Ethel Lance. “But I’m so happy that their lives matter. It’s not just a terrible tragedy that happened. It renews my faith a little bit.”
“If this case didn’t warrant the death penalty, what case would?” Risher said in a telephone interview. “He took it upon himself to take nine beautiful lives. Now 12 people of all races have said his life is the price he needs to pay for that.”
Risher’s mother, the Rev. Sharon Risher, said that she “felt like my heart was going to pop” as she sat in the courtroom and listened to the sentencing decision. She said that she had been ambivalent about the death penalty, but had resigned herself to accept whatever decision the jury made.
“But now that they have said he will get the death penalty, I feel that they have given him what he deserves,” she said. “It is well with my soul.”
Earlier Tuesday, Roof, 22, had stood before the jury and delivered a halting and cryptic closing argument, suggesting that the prosecution “hates me” and that his killing of nine parishioners at a Bible study meeting in 2015 was not motivated by hatred of black people.
“Anyone that thinks I’m filled with hatred has no idea what real hatred is,” said Roof, a self-described white supremacist who has said he hoped his high-profile killings would incite a race war in America. “They don’t know anything about me. They don’t know what real hatred looks like. They think they do, but they don’t.”
“I would say that in this case, the prosecution and anyone else who hates me are the ones that have been misled,” Roof said in a soft voice, standing before the eight women and four men who, shortly after, began deliberating whether to sentence him to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the prosecution hates me?” Roof said, noting that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.
Roof told the jury they might think, “‘Of course they hate you; everyone hates you. They have good reason to hate you.’ I don’t deny it.”
For the first time, Roof also obliquely seemed to raise the possibility that some emotional or mental condition may have led to his killing rampage. Previously, Roof had clashed with his court-appointed attorneys who wanted to introduce evidence of mental illness.
“Um, I think it’s safe to say that no one in their right mind wants to go into a church and kill people,” said Roof, wearing a light blue cable-knit sweater and gray khakis, at the start of his seven-minute closing argument.
Roof pointed out to the jury that in his confession to the FBI, “I told them I had to do it. … Obviously that’s not true. Nobody made me do it.”
Without directly explaining his meaning, Roof then said, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”
Roof also noted that he had a right to ask the jury to spare his life, but “I’m not sure what good that would do.”
Roof said FBI officials in his interrogation asked him, “So is it safe to say that you don’t like black people?”
“My response to them was, ‘Well, I don’t like what black people do,’ ” he said.
If he hated black people, Roof said, “wouldn’t I have just said, ‘Yes, I don’t like black people?’”
He noted that imposition of the death penalty required a unanimous decision by the jury.
“Only one of you needs to disagree,” he said, noting that each of them said during jury selection that they would stand up for what they thought was right.
With that, Roof paused, looked up and said: “That’s all, thank you.”
Roof’s closing statement followed a detailed two-hour closing argument by prosecutor Jay Richardson, who recapped the facts of the case, which have been uncontested by Roof.
Roof’s guilt was never in doubt; he admitted to FBI interrogators that he had planned for months to kill black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, because of the church’s historic significance in the black community — he said it would “make the biggest wave” and hopefully inspire other white people to kill black people.
The only question was whether Roof, a ninth-grade dropout, would be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Roof seemed to all but guarantee his fate by choosing to fire his court-appointed lawyers — including a respected death-penalty specialist — and represent himself during the penalty phase of the trial.
Richardson told the jury how Roof had planned the shootings for months and had become a radicalized racist online in recent years — especially since the killing of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a white man.
“He feels no remorse because it was worth it to him,” Richardson said.
Richardson displayed photos of all nine victims, who ranged in age from 26 to 87 — contrasting photos of them smiling in life and lying crumpled and bloody on a church basement floor after being shot by Roof.
Richardson also noted that Roof considered Adolf Hitler “an icon, someone to be emulated,” and even loaded 88 bullets into his gun’s magazines — a common white supremacist symbol: H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and 88 represents “Heil Hitler.”
Richardson urged the jury to “speak the truth and hold this defendant accountable for his actions. Sentence this defendant to death.”
Following the jury’s decision, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement it will “hold him accountable for his choices.”
“No verdict can bring back the nine we lost that day at Mother Emanuel. And no verdict can heal the wounds of the five church members who survived the attack or the souls of those who lost loved ones to Roof’s callous hand. But we hope that the completion of the prosecution provides the people of Charleston — and the people of our nation — with a measure of closure.”
Dustin Waters in Charleston contributed to this report.
This story has been updated since it was first published.