CHARLESTON, S.C. — Six weeks after he shot and killed nine people at a Charleston church, Dylann Roof lamented in a jailhouse journal that he could no longer go to the movies or eat good food. But he still felt the massacre was “worth it” because of what he perceived as the wrongs perpetrated by the black community.
“I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did,” Roof wrote. “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
The journal was the centerpiece of prosecutors’ opening bid to convince jurors that Roof, 22, deserves the death penalty for slaying nine black parishioners of the city’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Roof was convicted last month of federal hate crimes for the shooting, and Wednesday marked the first day in the penalty phase of his trial.
Prosecutors had held back dramatic evidence for the occasion, adding more emotion to an already harrowing trial.
A woman whose husband was slain told jurors that she had listened from another room, urging her young daughter to be quiet, as Roof shot and killed her husband. Friends and family members of the slain testified of the bright futures cut short. Some shared funny stories that drew laughter in the courtroom. Others cried.
“I literally did not know what to do,” the Rev. Anthony Thompson said of the moment he learned that his wife, Myra, had been killed. “If she’s gone, then what am I here for?”
Even as they present such horror, prosecutors have a difficult task. Since the federal death penalty statute was reinstated in 1988 and expanded in 1994, the government has taken a little more than 200 such cases to trial, and juries have handed down punishments of life in prison about twice as often as they have opted for the death penalty, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. Roof’s case presents a complication because the ninth-grade dropout has chosen to represent himself — and to offer almost no real defense.
Roof used a brief opening statement only to tell jurors that he had fired his lawyers because he did not want them to present evidence about his mental health. He complained that the lawyers, outside of the view of the jury, “forced me to go through two competency hearings,” which he said would eventually become part of the public record.
“So, in that respect, my self-representation accomplishes nothing, so you can say, what’s the point?” Roof said. “And the point is that I’m not going to lie to you, either by myself or through anyone else.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” he added later.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams said that Roof’s crimes were awful enough to deserve the ultimate penalty. Roof killed not one person, but nine, and “he killed them because of the color of their skin,” Williams said. Roof researched and scouted the church full of innocent people, whom he targeted for their vulnerability and “to magnify and incite violence in others,” Williams said.
And even six weeks after the massacre was over, Williams said, Roof wrote about his racial hatred and desire to spark mayhem in a journal that investigators took from his jail cell. He said he sometimes lamented the loss of some of the things he enjoyed doing while free, but remarked, “Then I remember how I felt when I did these things, when I committed these murders, and how I knew I had to do something. And then I realized it was worth it.”
Jurors on Wednesday heard firsthand from a survivor of the attack: Jennifer Pinckney, who listened from another room in the church as Roof gunned down her husband, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who also was a state senator, and the others.
Pinckney said she urged her daughter to be quiet, so that they, too, would not be killed, and when she went to retrieve her phone, she told the young girl: “Regardless of what happens to Mommy, you stay under this desk.” Earlier, she said, she had heard Roof say, “I’m not crazy, I had to do this,” and what sounded like him attempting to open the locked door.
“I was just like, ‘This is it, this is it,’ ” Pinckney said.
As Pinckney testified, Roof sat motionless — looking downward or straight ahead. Given an opportunity to question her himself, Roof said, “No questions.” He also declined to question other witnesses, although he took notes and leafed through papers during some testimony.
Roof did not contest his guilt in the case. Jurors saw a video of him matter-of-factly confessing to the crime in an interview with FBI agents and even chuckling at times.
“I am guilty,” he said. “We all know I’m guilty.”
In the same interview, though, Roof said that he regretted the crime “a little bit” and that the fact that nine people were killed “makes me feel bad.” Jurors took less than two hours to find him guilty of all 33 counts they were asked to consider.
Even some involved in the investigation and prosecution — including William Nettles, the former U.S. attorney in South Carolina, and Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — advised against Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s decision to seek Roof’s execution. The victims’ church, popularly known as Mother Emanuel, opposes the death penalty on religious grounds, and victims’ family members and those representing them have expressed complicated views on the subject.
Asked in his interview with FBI agents what he thought should happen to him, Roof responded, “I don’t know how to answer that.” But asked what should happen to a black man who killed nine white people in a church, Roof said: “He should probably die, too, I guess.”
In court Wednesday, victims’ family members focused not on the death penalty, but on fond memories of their loved ones. Some of the most poignant testimony came from Thompson, who said that typically when his wife left their home, he walked her to the door, kissed her and told her he loved her. But on the day she died, he missed his chance.
“It just didn’t happen that day,” Thompson said, wiping tears from his eyes.
Andrew J. Savage III, who represents several survivors of the attack and family members of those slain, said many — though not all — of his clients initially opposed the death penalty. They included Felicia Sanders, who was there during the shooting and whose son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, was killed.
“She wanted him to live so he could think about what he did and recall her son’s statement during the shooting, which was, ‘We mean you no harm,’ ” Savage said.
But Savage said Sanders’s and others’ views have evolved, especially since they saw Roof’s videotaped confession. Sanders, he said, is not a supporter of the death penalty but feels “that government has its responsibilities that she does not control.”
Federal death sentences are a rarity, and federal executions even more so. The Justice Department has executed only three inmates in the modern death penalty era, and the last such execution was in 2003.
In some ways, Savage said, there is no good outcome for the victims’ loved ones. If Roof is sentenced to death, Savage said, the families will have to endure years of appeals. If he isn’t, they will still have to wrestle with an upcoming state trial, where a jury could impose a death sentence.
“The thing that they probably won’t get, and the thing that I want the most for them, is some form of closure,” Savage said. “The closure is not coming.”