Crime & Courts

Dylann Roof: A bizarre, lonely life – and then a decision to kill

Dylann Roof target practice

Exhibit GX 299 in the federal trial of Dylann Roof. The video made public in December shows Roof recording himself during target practice before the June 2015 shootings in Charleston.
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Exhibit GX 299 in the federal trial of Dylann Roof. The video made public in December shows Roof recording himself during target practice before the June 2015 shootings in Charleston.

In the weeks and months leading up to the horrific June 2015 Charleston church massacre, Dylann Roof had a bedroom in a log cabin-like house just outside Columbia. The house belonged to his mother’s boyfriend.

In the backyard of that house, on Garners Ferry Road in Hopkins, Roof shot his Glock .45 at a tree for target practice, scooping up many of the bullet casings into an open container. Others, he left on the grass. He took videos of himself shooting. They show him in a sleeveless muscle shirt wearing reflective sunglasses.

Exhibit GX 299 in the federal trial of Dylann Roof. The video made public in December shows Roof recording himself during target practice before the June 2015 shootings in Charleston.

The $400 to buy the Glock was a birthday gift from his father, Ben Roof, who was divorced from Roof’s mother.

“Happy 21st birthday! I love you, buddy!” his dad’s birthday card said. Roof had turned 21 on April 3, 2015, about 10 weeks before the shootings.

All of these details, emerging last week in testimony during Roof’s federal death penalty trial in Charleston, pull back the curtain just a bit more on Roof – a wandering loner gripped by delusional racist ideas.

Roof had a camera, his mother’s. He used that camera to take photos with white supremacist, Confederate and Nazi themes, as well as photos of his cat. Hundreds of pictures of his cat – the only living creature Roof felt comfortable with, his lawyer said during the trial.

In winter and spring of 2015, Roof spent hours on the internet, absorbing white supremacy beliefs.

In a 2-hour video released by authorities, Dylann Roof explains why he went into Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church and shot 9 people in June 2015.

Increasingly obsessed with the idea that black people were a danger to whites in America, he stepped up his visits to Charleston, where he was scouting the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church. He planned to do his killing there to inspire other white Americans to launch a race war.

No one prompted him to do what he did. In his videotaped confession to the FBI and in handwritten notes to each of his parents, found in his car, he said they did nothing wrong.

“Defendant Roof was self-radicalized and ... he adopted his violent white supremacist beliefs principally from self-teaching from internet-based media and other sources, rather (than) through his personal associations or experiences with white supremacist groups or individuals or others,” according to a government filing.

On Thursday, a jury took just more than two hours to convict Roof, now 22, of federal hate crimes resulting in death.

On Jan. 3, the same jury will begin hearing evidence in the trial’s second stage – to determine whether to give him the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Roof was convicted on 33 counts involving the June 17, 2015, killings of nine African-Americans at Emanuel AME, and the attempted killings of three more.

Despite six days of testimony, the trial so far hasn’t presented a full picture of Roof, a ninth-grade dropout.

Despite six days of testimony, the trial so far hasn’t presented a full picture of Roof, a ninth-grade dropout.

Roof was declared competent to stand trial – that is, to be able to understand the proceedings against him and to assist his lawyers. Any testimony about mental illness or disease wouldn’t absolve him of guilt. But in the trial’s upcoming penalty phase, such testimony could offset the depravity of Roof’s crime, leading a jury to possibly consider a life sentence instead of death.

Trial testimony showed that although Roof put a lot of planning into the crime, he didn’t think much about the aftermath.

Trial testimony showed that although Roof put a lot of planning into the crime, he didn’t think much about the aftermath. Although he told FBI agents and one of the survivors of the shootings he thought of suicide, he jumped in his 2000 Hyundi Elantra after the killings and made his way north toward Charlotte.

And although he had enough money before the shootings to travel between Columbia and Charleston a half-dozen times, casing the church, he had so little money with him after the shooting that he had to stop and withdraw $20 from an ATM along the way.

His car trunk was full of dirty clothes. After his arrest in Shelby, N.C., in the Blue Ridge foothills, he told agents he was headed to Nashville.

‘An uncontrollable obsession’

Trial testimony about Roof’s friends was minimal.

An FBI agent testified that Roof’s father had told agents on the morning after the killings that Roof had a friend named Joey Meek and might be located in Lexington County. But by then, Roof had been arrested.

The FBI later arrested Meek and charged him with withholding information about the crime and lying to federal agents. Last April, Meek pleaded guilty to those charges and admitted Roof had told him a full week before the killings that he would go to Emanuel AME and kill as many blacks as he could with his Glock.

Meek, who hopes to get a lighter sentence in return for pleading guilty and cooperating with the government, didn’t testify at Roof’s trial earlier this month.

Despite Roof’s apparent sharing of his plans with at least one friend, most of what he did was alone.

Despite Roof’s apparent sharing of his plans with at least one friend, most of what he did was alone.

Videos showed that when he went to Shooter’s Choice gun shop in April 2015 to buy his Glock, he was alone. Later, when he bought bullets and magazines at Wal-Mart, he was alone. On his visits to Confederate and other race-related sites, such as the S.C. State House Confederate flag, he was alone.

Roof’s motivations and actions can be taken two ways, only one of which – the prosecution’s view – has been fully presented to the jury.

The other view is what Roof’s attorney David Bruck has tried to get across to the jury, that Roof’s actions were unleashed by poisonous delusions so powerful they caused him to kill.

Attorney David Bruck told the jury that Dylann Roof has a mental condition called “perseveration” – and the next instant, assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams objected.

In his closing argument Thursday, Bruck told the jury that Roof has a mental condition called “perseveration” – and the next instant, assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams objected – so the jury never got to hear Bruck’s explanation.

The word “perseveration” refers to an uncontrollable obsession that causes a person to be able to think of little else. Other than that word, there has has been no specific identification of any alleged Roof mental defect.

After reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan in August 2014, Bruck told the jury, Roof suddenly believed that he, and only he, could save American by killing blacks and launching a race war. The Ku Klux Klan, Roof wrote in an online manifesto, had grown too weak to do the job.

That book was like a “magic decoder ring” that gave Roof, in his unstable state of mind, a revelatory, but utterly false, way to view the world, Bruck said.

‘Evil monster’?

The penalty phase of a capital trial is where evidence about a defendant’s mental condition can be presented.

However, after the verdict, Roof told Judge Richard Gergel he doesn’t want Bruck – who has said he would introduce such evidence – to represent him. Instead, Roof said, he will represent himself.

On Friday, in a hand-written note, Dylann Roof told the judge he doesn’t want mental health evidence introduced in January.

On Friday, in a handwritten note, Roof told Gergel he won’t introduce mental health evidence in January.

Roof wrote as part of his online manifesto that he doesn’t believe in psychology. “It is a Jewish invention and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”

If Roof keeps mental health evidence out, jurors will be unable to consider what death penalty lawyer Sean O’Brien calls “the central issue in the case”: how much Roof is responsible for his actions.

“Is Dylann Roof a severely disturbed young man, or is he this evil monster? The prosecution has been putting on this ‘evil monster’ case, with the defense literally shackled to the chair,” said O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law professor who has specialized in death penalty cases since the 1980s. O’Brien has kept up with Roof’s case and has viewed Roof’s two-hour confession to FBI agents.

“All the things that David Bruck mentioned in his closing arguments are classic characteristics of a person with a severe mental illness,” O’Brien said.

But prosecutors don’t believe Roof is a poster child for untreated, undiagnosed mental illness.

They put up a witness who told the jury Roof was “evil.” They depicted him as a man who could kill African-Americans so easily because he regarded them as “less than human.”

“Racial zealots still exist – people who are willing to do unspeakable things!” federal prosecutor Stephen Curry told the jury on Thursday.

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