Victim Felicia Sanders talks about Dylann Roof guilty verdict
Each morning they flowed into Courtroom Six, escorted by federal officials from a holding room reserved for survivors and families of the victims. The accused, Dylann Roof, never turned from the end of the defense table to acknowledge the parents, widows and widowers, children, grandchildren and fellow congregants of the nine African-Americans he confessed to killing in June 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Felicia Sanders, who survived the rampage but lost her son and her aunt, watched from the first of six rows of wooden benches, along with her husband, Tyrone. The Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, who now inhabits the office once occupied by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was among those killed, sat one row back. The Rev. Anthony B. Thompson, whose wife, Myra, led the evening Bible study that Roof joined, always took his place in the fifth row, along with John Pinckney, the former pastor’s father.
Until the jury returned a guilty verdict on Thursday afternoon, family members stoically endured a week of tormenting testimony in U.S. District Court, where Roof, 22, faced 33 counts. Many will be back on Jan. 3 when the same jury considers whether to sentence Roof to death.
On Thursday morning, there were firm hugs between family members outside the courtroom after a prosecutor delivered a stirring closing argument, illustrated by gruesome crime scene photographs. On Wednesday, they heard from a medical examiner about the more than 60 wounds inflicted by his Winchester hollow-point bullets. On Tuesday, they watched three unnerving videos that Roof filmed of himself taking backyard target practice with the murder weapon in a two-handed grip.
Here is what it has been like for some in the courtroom:
Thompson attended Roof’s trial each day except last Thursday, when he knew prosecutors would show photographs of the blood bath inside the fellowship hall.
“I didn’t want to see the images,” he said in his office at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, where he is vicar. “I didn’t want to have that in my head every day for the rest of my life, and of course I didn’t want to see my wife like that.”
His decision meant he also missed the videos, captured by a church security camera, of some of the final moments of his 59-year-old wife’s life: the six-second clip of her striding purposefully in the side door at 5 p.m., dressed in a black suit and white blouse; then the footage of her slipping out an hour later, warmly hugging two church members. Two hours after that, the camera captured Roof entering, a black pack around his waist, weighted by a .45-caliber Glock and eight loaded magazines.
“It has been an emotional roller coaster,” Thompson said. “We have shed tears. There has been fear of the unknown.”
Thompson, 64, was one of the five family members who, in a spontaneous demonstration of grace, expressed forgiveness for Roof at his bond hearing less than 48 hours after the shootings. That has not changed, he said, despite watching Roof’s nonchalant and largely remorseless admission to plotting the assault to foment racial strife.
“I have no intentions of taking that back,” the gray-headed clergyman said, stressing that his forgiveness had been more for himself than for Roof. “He is not a part of my life anymore. Forgiveness has freed me of that, of him completely. I’m not going to make him a lifetime partner.”
That said, he wished the Justice Department had accepted Roof’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. “The bad part is having to relive it, the going back to the beginning,” he said. “It’s just a lot to bear.”
Thompson said he finds Roof a pathetic figure but not mentally defective, as Roof’s lawyers would like the jury to believe. As a result, although he opposes the death penalty, he does not much care what happens to Roof.
“His sentence won’t affect the way I live, won’t bring my wife back,” he said. “Whatever he gets I look at it as, well, that’s what he’s supposed to get. I have no choice in the matter.”
Manning had no connection to Mother Emanuel until January, when he won appointment to the historic pulpit after a tumultuous six months in which the church’s leadership changed three times. Other than his predecessor, Pinckney, he did not know any of the victims.
But he has been in court each day, all day, since jury selection began, often joined by a fellow Emanuel minister, Brenda Nelson. Nelson would have joined the Bible study on any other Wednesday, but on that sweltering night she drove home to meet an air-conditioner repairman.
Manning, 49, said he felt it important to be at the courthouse to demonstrate “a ministry of presence.”
“You might not be able to say everything, but just that you can smile and they can smile back and you can hug, they know you’re there,” he said. The pastor has been preaching from the Book of Psalms during the trial, reminding his congregation on Sunday that “in the midst of all of this, God’s joy is the one constant.”
Manning said he had been moved by the stoicism of those around him, and of the two survivors who testified. “What has been displayed,” he said, “is just the determination to show once again the resilience and how strong our faith and trust is in God.”
The video taken before the murders of his church’s stalwarts affected him deeply. “They were just there doing what they have done on so many other Wednesdays, just there to study God’s word,” he said. “And in the midst of that, evil presented itself.”
Although his church opposes the death penalty, he acknowledged that Roof’s lack of remorse had given him “momentary pause.”
“But you have to always still do what is required, you have to forgive,” he said. “Now, am I there? I don’t know yet. Maybe that’s a question I’ll be able to answer after the trial.”
Jennifer Benjamin Pinckney, who was married to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney for 16 years, and Johnette Pinckney Martinez, the pastor’s adoring younger sister, have been inseparable during the trial. Pinckney and her 6-year-old daughter were in the pastor’s study when the killings began and huddled beneath a desk as bullets pierced the office wall. One of her first calls was to her sister-in-law in Irmo, near Columbia. “Get to Charleston,” she implored.
Eighteen months later, the trial has brought it all back. “It’s been pretty difficult to hear some of the things, well, most of the things,” Martinez, a corrections officer, said. “But for me it was another step in the healing process.”
The most painful moment was seeing the photographs of Clementa Pinckney, dressed as ever in his dark suit (he even wore them to high school), dead on the linoleum floor.
Jennifer Pinckney, a school librarian, said that the experience had been “emotionally excruciating” and that her reactions had coursed from tears to fury.
Both women said it had been comforting to see the surveillance video of the Pinckney family arriving at church, the pastor holding his pony-tailed daughter’s hand. He hugged a woman on her way out, patted another on the back, helped a third down a step.
“That was him all the time,” Pinckney said of her husband, who was also a state senator. “He’s always greeting people, always hugging people, always interacting with people. It was his final moment, and it’s something I’ve seen dozens of times over.”
Both women said they were stunned to see evidence downloaded from the GPS in Roof’s car that he had cased the church on six trips to Charleston from his home near Columbia. “It was an eerie feeling to know he had been there for that period of time,” Pinckney said. “He was in the midst of everyone, knowing what he was planning.” She remains bewildered that he targeted Mother Emanuel.
Given the devastation he caused, what confounded Martinez as she observed Roof was his boyishness and his slight 5-foot-9, 120-pound frame. “It’s just unbelievable,” she said. “I would never have thought a child that young — a man that young — would have so much hate in his heart.”