In the four hours before a federal judge formally sentenced him to death on Wednesday, an unrepentant Dylann Roof sat in a federal courtroom as 35 people who loved his nine victims stared him down and bared their hearts.
“You wanted people to kill each other. But instead you started a love war. ... And they removed the Confederate flag!” Melvin Graham, brother of the slain Cynthia Graham Hurd, told Roof, referring to how the slayings at Emanuel AME Church have led to increased racial understanding.
“What I want to tell you is, your mission failed! Failed! Failed! Failed! Failed!” cried another relative.
Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist from Columbia, had gone to Charleston on June 17, 2015, in hopes of starting a race war that white people would win. For months before, Roof had scouted the church and decided that because of Mother Emanuel’s significance in Charleston’s history and its prominent members, it was the perfect place to kill a group of innocents who wouldn’t fight back.
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Not everyone who spoke to Roof was forgiving.
Emanuel member Marsha Spender fixed Roof with a hard stare. “What are you?” she asked. “What kind of subhuman miscreant could commit such evil? ... Perhaps like Judas, you were destined to be nothing other than a pathetic and reviled human being.”
Those who had known the victims called them “God’s finest angels” and related how grief-stricken grandchildren and nieces still carry on imaginary conversations with them. Several said they had been visited by the spirits of their loved ones and knew they were in heaven.
Groping for ways to describe the extent of Roof’s actions, those who spoke compared Roof to Satan, spawn of Satan, the devil, the Enemy, Lucifer, Adolf Hitler and multiple killers Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson.
Many speakers, fixing Roof with a hard gaze and calling him by name, dared him to look them in the eye. He never once did. Instead, as he has during nearly three weeks of trial during this month and last, Roof sat by his court-appointed lawyers and stared straight ahead.
Ashland Temoney told Roof, “You are the biggest coward I’ve ever seen in my life. You can’t even look at me.”
“I need you to look at me,” said Tyrone Sanders, father of the slain Tywanza Sanders, 26. He told Roof he wished there was a law that required a condemned killer to have a limb cut off every time they filed an appeal. Then, “instead of taxpayers taking care of you when all four limbs are cut off, let your parents take care of you.”
The deaf son of slain Ethel Lance, the church caretaker, spoke through a sign language interpreter. “To you, Dylann Roof, I know you will be burning in hell,” signed Gary Washington.
Another relative, Janet Scott, began by shouting “Dylann!” When he didn’t look, she shouted again, “Dylann! ... I wish you could look at me Dylann!” He didn’t. She went on to tell him that Tywanza was an organ donor, but the bullets had done so much damage no organs could be donated.
Felicia Sanders, a survivor of Roof’s massacre, began by saying loudly in tremulous tones, “Dylann Storm Roof!” She had seen her son, Tywanza, 26, and her aunt, Susie Jackson, 87, shot to death at the Bible study class.
Recalling how Roof had started pulling his gun’s trigger when people had their heads bowed, Sanders told him, “I can’t shut my eyes to pray! I can’t shut my eyes to pray!” Sanders said. “Even when I try, I can’t because I have to keep my eyes on everyone “
Continuing, she said, “Yes, I forgive you. That was the easiest thing I had to do. But you can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to help themselves. ... May God have mercy on your soul.”
Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of the slain Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, told Roof, “I want to hate. God, I want to hate you. But my faith tells me no.” But she added, “God has given you to Satan, and he made your soul Satan’s playground.”
Kenya Pinckney, a brother of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, told Roof, “We are all moving in love and strength, and nothing you can do will ever be able to stop that.”
Another relative, a daughter of the slain Daniel Simmons, spoke softly, telling Roof, “I pray that one day when you meet Jesus Christ, our lord and savior, he will extend his hand in love.”
And Sheila Capers, sister of the slain Cynthia Graham Hurd, told Roof she hopes he finds God some day, and while he is waiting to be executed, “If you want me to come and pray with you, I will do that.”
Roof chose to say nothing.
After the victims spoke, Roof showed no emotion as Judge Richard Gergel read a lengthy list of the death-penalty-worthy counts against Roof for which a jury of nine whites and three blacks had found him culpable Tuesday.
“The jury, acting as the conscience of this community, has assured that his hate, his viciousness and the moral depravity of his crimes will not go unanswered,” Gergel said. Under the federal system, the judge had to follow the jury’s decision when sentencing Roof to death.
Gergel set no date for Roof’s execution. Appeals likely will delay it for many years.
Roof also will be tried in state court. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has been adamant about seeking the death penalty. No trial date has been set.