Dylann Roof in June 2015. (Jason Miczek/Reuters)
Opinion writer

If Death lingers in courtroom corridors awaiting sentences, this historic city’s federal courthouse was surely a top destination. On Tuesday, the Reaper’s patience was rewarded with the jury’s return of the death sentence for Dylann Roof.

Roof, who insisted on representing himself during the sentencing phase of his 33-count murder trial, was found guilty last month for the slaughter of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June 2015.

Roof’s self-lawyering is still mystifying, considering he had at his disposal one of the nation’s best death-penalty lawyers, David Bruck, who did represent Roof during the guilt phase that ended last month. Bruck was allowed only to advise Roof during the penalty phase, which began last week, but briefly addressed the judge Tuesday when Roof requested that Bruck address objections.

(Gillian Brockell,Bastien Inzaurralde,Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

While the government’s case seemed airtight in covering all the requirements for the death sentence, Roof’s remarks Tuesday took less than five minutes.

Wearing slacks and a blue cable-knit sweater — his bowl-cut hair obviously recently shaped — Roof approached the lectern with a single, yellow, letter-size sheet of paper for his closing argument. Barely audible — and his pauses were longer than his sentences — he made essentially two suggestions seemingly aimed at creating doubt about his alleged hatred of black people and his intent in carrying out his mission, which he himself previously identified as wanting to incite racial violence.

“I think it’s safe to say nobody in their mind wants to go into a church and kill people,” he began. Then he contradicted other confession statements in which he said he had to do what he did. “In my [FBI confession] tape, I told them I had to do it. . . . Obviously that’s not true. Nobody made me do it. What I meant when I said that was I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”

Clarity isn’t his strong suit.

Next, Roof challenged the prosecution’s claim that he’s filled with hatred, one of the statute-required aggravating factors in capital cases. He referred to his confession when an FBI agent asked him if he hated black people. Roof’s reply was: “I don’t like what black people do.”

To the jury, he posited, “If I was really filled with as much hate as I allegedly am, wouldn’t I just say, ‘Yes, I hate black people’?”

Finally, Roof said it’s fair to say that the prosecutors hate him since they’re seeking the death sentence. Then he tutored the court that people hate because they’ve been misled. He also said that people think they know what hatred it is, but “they don’t know what real hatred looks like.”

Does Roof? Is this because some hate-filled person misled him? Or did he merely look in the mirror?

Not once during his very brief remarks did Roof say he regretted his actions, which might have elicited some empathy from those burdened with determining his fate. Indeed, in a jailhouse journal, he wrote that he isn’t sorry and that he hadn’t shed a tear for the “innocent people I killed.”

Tuesday, as he attempted to take on a battery of lawyers hellbent on ultimate justice, he seemed ever the evil child who, rather than acknowledging the horror and the agony of what he did, was somehow above the process. Expressionless and aloof, as he had been throughout the trial, he was anything but a sympathetic character and certainly no advocate for his continued access to life.

Throughout the proceedings, my mind kept wandering to an earlier case I covered when Bruck was fighting another death sentence — the trial of Susan Smith, the young mother who in 1994 rolled her car into a Union, S.C., lake, drowning her two small children.

The crime was heinous and the trial heart-rending. At one point during the father’s testimony, the judge had to call for a break because nearly everyone in the courtroom, including the media, was weeping. The father had been talking about his 3-year-old’s favorite Disney movie, which the child called “One-o-one Dalma-hay-tions.”

Smith threw herself across the defense table, loudly sobbing with the agony of regret and the sorrow of inconsolable loss. Yes, she was responsible for her children’s deaths, but there was no questioning her remorse or doubting that her life in prison would be an endless night of piercing pain.

For death-penalty opponents including me, this seemed a far more just end than death would have been. With Roof, there’s plainly no sense of sorrow now — or to come. In the end, evidence of sincere remorse, which is to say humanity, can be the difference between life and death.

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