CHARLESTON, S.C. — The trial began with a harrowing depiction of the massacre that unfolded in a church basement not far from here, and it ended Wednesday with relatives of those slain again offering the killer forgiveness.
One by one, they stood up to face Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old avowed white supremacist and admitted gunman. They spoke after a trial that highlighted each of the lives taken by Roof when he walked into a church Bible study and mercilessly killed nine black parishioners, a trial that brought out Roof’s videotaped confession, his desire to spark a race war and his stark admission that he felt no regret.
They spoke to tell him that he failed.
“You didn’t accomplish anything but deep hurt for other people,” said Shirrene Goss, sister of Tywanza Sanders, one of Roof’s victims. “You’re going to realize you didn’t have to do this. It’s going to hit you hard and bring you to your knees.”
Roof returned to court Wednesday so that he could be formally sentenced to death, a judge handing down the punishment that was recommended a day earlier by the same jury that swiftly convicted Roof last month on all counts in his federal hate crimes trial.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said there were no winners in this trial, because the families of the victims must still deal with their loss and because Roof will pay for his crimes with his life. But Gergel said the trial was not futile.
“This proceeding cannot give the families what they truly want, the return of their loved ones, but the families and this community will receive some sense of justice,” Gergel said.
After the sorrow and the rage that took shape in the courtroom here, just a mile from the Mother Emanuel church where the bloodshed occurred, the mercy shown Wednesday was a remarkable mirror of what unfolded the first time Roof appeared in court.
Again, those who lost loved ones to Roof’s hand did not condemn or assail him. They did not minimize their pain and suffering, but they told Roof that they could not be brought to hate him, despite what he did, despite his admission in a jailhouse journal that he had “not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
For weeks, they sat in the Charleston courtroom and learned more about the murders that occurred inside Mother Emanuel. They learned about the months of planning and the racist ideology that motivated his attack in June 2015.
Goss had spoken earlier in the week about the promise of her brother’s life and about her regret that her son, only 9 weeks old when Sanders was killed, would never know his uncle. But she told Roof that his actions could not overpower her family.
“We’re not broken,” Goss said.” We’re hurt, yes. But we’re not broken.”
After more than 30 friends, relatives and fellow church members addressed Roof in court, he offered no response. Given the opportunity to address the court before his death sentence was handed down, Roof and his attorneys remained silent. No one offered to speak on Roof’s behalf.
Roof will now become the 60th person on the federal death row. After choosing to represent himself during the penalty phase of the trial, Roof has already asked for new attorneys to represent him in his motion for a new trial.
Gergel on Wednesday rejected that request, but he granted Roof’s motion to give him more time with the request for a new trial.
What follows remains unclear, although it will be some time before Roof enters a federal execution chamber, if that ever occurs.
The federal government last executed an inmate in 2003, when Louis Jones Jr., a Gulf War veteran, was put to death for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old Army recruit. Two years earlier, the government executed executed Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing and Juan Raul Garza for murdering three men.
Those three cases represent all of the executions carried out since the federal death penalty statute was reinstated in 1988 and expanded six years later. Federal death sentences are rare, and in recent years, the Obama administration has effectively frozen such executions amid a review of the federal policy ordered by the president.
President Obama has called the death penalty “deeply troubling,” but he remained in favor of using it for particularly heinous crimes. His administration sought it most recently for Roof and, before that, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death on federal charges in 2015 for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Tsarnaev is being held at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., according to the Bureau of Prisons. If Tsarnaev or Roof wind up being put to death, they will be brought to the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where federal death sentences are carried out.
However, while death sentences and executions alike have plummeted across the country in recent years, states seeking to execute inmates have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs amid an ongoing shortage. When Tsarnaev was sentenced, federal officials said the government did not have any lethal injection drugs, which are increasingly difficult for officials to obtain. A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, when asked recently, would not say whether the government has obtained any lethal injection drugs, and it is unclear whether the federal government would have easier access to such chemicals than state officials.
Also unclear is what impact President-elect Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of the death penalty, would have on federal executions. His pick to head the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), echoes his views on capital punishment and has been a proponent of it during his time as a federal prosecutor, Alabama’s attorney general and a U.S. senator.
However, it may be years before that issue becomes a life-or-death matter for Roof. He likely has years of appeals separating him from any possible execution date. Roof also faces a potential death sentence in his state trial on murder charges, but South Carolina also lacks lethal injection drugs.
Relatives of those killed said after Tuesday’s announcement that they were happy Roof was sentenced to death. “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.” “
Sanders’s mother, Felicia, was the first and last witness in the federal trial. She survived the massacre, and when the trial began, she described lying under a table while “bullets started flying everywhere,” holding her 11-year-old granddaughter so close that she thought she was suffocating her.
When Felicia Sanders testified about her son’s death, she looked directly at Roof through her tears, saying he was “refusing to look at me right now” while she described his firing five bullets into her son. On Wednesday, she called Roof by his full name, telling him that he had gotten into her head.
Clutching the tattered Bible she carried to the church on the night of the shooting, she said she can no longer shut her eyes to pray out of fear of another attack. But she said she can still find comfort in the torn and bloodied book she showed to the court.
“Yes, I forgive you,” Sanders said. “That’s the easiest thing I had to do. But you can’t help someone who can’t help themselves. And that’s exactly what you are.”
As he did through the trial, Roof remained unwilling to meet the eyes of those who spoke to him, his behavior unchanged from that first court appearance, when he stared at the ground while those still planning funerals and memorials offered him compassion through a video feed.
Staring forward on Wednesday without an expression, Roof ignored demands by many of his victims’ loved ones to acknowledge their words and look their way.
“How can you sit here every day looking dumb-faced and acting like you did nothing?” asked Ashland Temoney, the niece of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “You are the biggest coward I have seen in my life. You are the biggest coward because even today you can’t look at us.”
Several of those who spoke Wednesday said that Roof’s soul was bound for hell, while others maintained that he was still capable of redemption. Many offered to pray for him; some offered to pray with him.
Not all wanted Roof condemned to die. The Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, called for Roof’s life to be spared.
“I still don’t want you to die. I want you to be able to sit in that cell,” Risher said, asking that Roof consider the lives he’s taken. “You have made them martyrs. You have made them the face of America. You have given me a voice and a platform I never would have had to crusade for them.”
Before he left the courtroom, Roof heard from Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of Middleton-Doctor, who said she wanted to hate him but that her faith would not allow it.
“You put forth all that effort, and you got nothing. You didn’t touch her soul,” Middleton-Brown told Roof about her sister.
She told Roof that even when he returned to his cell, he would not escape her words.
“Dylann Roof, you can’t look at me, but when you are alone, you will hear me,” Middleton-Brown said. “You will see my face because of my sister. I am a black woman, and I am proud.”
Berman reported from Washington.
[This story has been updated since it was first published.]