Crime & Courts

Roof gets death penalty after telling jury, ‘I still feel that I had to do it’

A federal jury on Tuesday unanimously recommended the death penalty for Dylann Roof after last month convicting him in the June 2015 hate crimes killings of nine African-Americans at a historic Charleston church.

Roof, 22, an avowed white supremacist from the Columbia area, is the first defendant to be sentenced to death for federal hate crimes, according to a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman.

In their long list of findings in the decision for death, the nine white and three black jurors unanimously found that racial hatred was one of the motivating factors that prompted Roof to kill the parishioners during their Wednesday night Bible study. They also cited Roof’s lack of remorse for what a federal prosecutor earlier Tuesday deemed “a race-based massacre.”

The jurors, 10 of whom were women, took a little less than three hours to decide on death.

After the verdict, Melvin Graham, the brother of one of Roof’s victims, librarian Cynthia Hurd, met with reporters.“This is a very hollow victory,” Graham said. “My sister is gone. I wish that this verdict could bring her back. But it can’t.

“But what it can do is send a message to those who feel the way he feels that this community will not tolerate it.”

An hour before, as Roof listened to U.S. Judge Richard Gergel read the jury’s decision, he fidgeted with his hands while keeping his gaze straight ahead.

Roof, who was representing himself, then stood and asked for new attorneys to handle a motion for a new trial.

Gergel, appearing taken aback by Roof’s request for new attorneys made just seconds after hearing the death sentence, told the defendant to “think about it overnight” and provide specifics about the request at a later date.

On Wednesday, Gergel will formally sentence Roof to death. A jury’s finding of death is binding upon a federal judge. But at Wednesday’s hearing, Gergel also will hear brief statements by relatives and friends of the victims, each of whom was described during the trial as model citizens, active church members and vital in the lives of their families.

Earlier Tuesday, Roof made a brief statement to the jury in which he expressed no remorse and specifically avoided asking for mercy.

“From what I’ve been told, I have a right to ask you to give me a life sentence,” said Roof, standing before the jury. “But I am not sure what good that would do anyway.”

Roof did not defend his actions. “I still feel that I had to do it,” he told jurors.

Still, Roof reminded the jury that it would only take one member to derail a unanimous death verdict and result in a life sentence.

Roof also spoke about hate, saying, “Wouldn’t it be fairer to say the prosecution hates me since they are trying to give me the death penalty? ... I have no idea what real hate is. They (prosecutors) don’t know anything at all about hatred. They don’t know anything about hatred. They think they do, but they don’t.”

Roof did not testify during either the trial’s guilt phase, held in December, or in the penalty phase. Nor did he put up any witnesses. During the guilt phase, when he was represented by his court-appointed lawyers, he also barred them from putting up any witnesses or offering any evidence that might lead the jury to consider a life sentence.

Roof spoke after federal prosecutor Jay Richardson detailed to the jury Roof’s methodical preparations for the killings. Those preparations included studying white supremacist ideology on extremist websites, idealizing Adolf Hitler, scouting Emanuel AME Church and running through repeated target practices.

The federal death penalty, Richardson said, is reserved for only a small number of cases. This is one, he said.

“He went to that church with a hateful heart and a Glock .45,” Richardson told the jury. He spoke for two hours and used no notes. Jurors were transfixed as Richardson described how Roof picked Mother Emanuel because it was a historic church, and a Bible study group because the people there would likely pose no threat. “He wanted to do it in a way and in a place that did not pose a threat to himself,” Richardson said.

Roof, who displayed “not on ounce of remorse,” even videotaped himself shooting targets on the ground in his mother’s backyard “so he could see the very last image that these victims would see when he shot them over and over,” Richardson said.

Richardson said Roof made deliberate choices to spread “his message of hate, his message of revenge, his message of agitation” in hopes of igniting a race war in which the white race would someday reign supreme and relegate surviving African-Americans to second-class citizenship.

“He spent years acquiring this deep hatred,” Richardson said. “He ‘had to do it.’ Those are the words of an extraordinary racist.”

In addition to detailing Roof’s plans and motivations, Richardson spent nearly an hour talking about the remarkable lives all the victims had led. He called them “the best among us.”

Richardson finished with a rousing chant in which he named each of the nine victims: “Sentence this defendant to death for killing Clementa Pinckney! Sentence this defendant to death for killing Daniel Simmons!” And so on.

Graham, of Goose Creek, said the death penalty was appropriate in Roof’s case.“When you look at the totality of what happened, it’s hard to say that this person deserves to live, when nine others don’t.”

“To justify saving one life, when he took nine, in such a brutal fashion, with no remorse. He just took them away from us,” Graham said. “He decided the day, the hour and the moment that my sister was going to die. And now someone is going to do the same to him.”

Referring to possible appeals, Graham continued, “But unlike my sister, he has another chance.”

Searching for words to describe what happened, Graham quoted from the Lord’s prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” When Roof walked in that church, he said, “Evil came.”

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement late Tuesday, in part, “We hope that the completion of the prosecution provides the people of Charleston – and the people of our nation – with a measure of closure.”

Roof’s defense team, who had represented him during the guilt phase of the trial but not the punishment phase, said: “We want to express our sympathy to all of the families who were so grievously hurt by Dylann Roof’s actions. Today’s sentencing decision means that this case will not be over for a very long time. We are sorry that, despite our best efforts, the legal proceedings have shed so little light on the reasons for this tragedy.”

Roof’s legal team, led by David Bruck, had repeatedly tried to get evidence before the jury that Roof was mentally ill. But Roof refused to let mental evidence go before the jury.

Father John Parker of Mount Pleasant, identified by family members as Roof’s spiritual advisor, also released a statement. “I denounce Dylann’s unspeakable crimes. I pray fervently for the victims, their surviving family and friends, and for the faithful of Mother Emanuel.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC