Jury Finds Emanuel AME Church Shooter Dylann Roof Guilty of Murdering 9 Parishioners

Prosecutors have said the man, Dylann Roof, 22, is an avowed white supremacist who carried out a racially motivated attack. Defense lawyers have said he would plead guilty if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. (Reuters)
Prosecutors have said the man, Dylann Roof, 22, is an avowed white supremacist who carried out a racially motivated attack. Defense lawyers have said he would plead guilty if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. (Reuters)

The jury in the trial of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof on Thursday found Roof guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes after two hours of deliberations.

The verdict came about an hour after they asked to look at a video of his confession, expressing interest in his statements that he didn’t know how many people he had shot.

The jury of eight white females, one white male, two black females and one black male was sent out initially a little after 1 pm, then recalled to clarify a legal instruction by the judge.

The shootings in June 2015 horrified South Carolinians and the nation. State lawmakers, upon urging from Gov. Nikki Haley, voted to lower the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in response to the crime, which also prompted a dialogue about race relations. President Barack Obama spoke at the victims’ eulogies, praising their families for their grace in forgiving Roof, an admitted white supremacist.

Closing arguments in the guilt phase of the trial ended late Thursday morning.

Dylann Roof’s chief defense lawyer told the jury that the most important question in the 2015 murders of nine black parishioners is why and he pointed to Roof’s internet exploration of racial crimes as an explanation.

“That is the why as far as the evidence shows,” David Bruck told the jury.

But government prosecutors told the jury there was no mystery to Roof’s motivation, which they said stemmed from racial hatred so immense that he was willing to shoot innocent people as they prayed in a church and lay wounded on the floor.

Roof’s lawyers called no witnesses when testimony ended this week and Roof has indicated he will take over his defense in the sentencing phase if he is found guilty.

Bruck did not contest the evidence in his closing arguments and even offered praise for the FBI’s probe in the case. He focused instead on what motivated Roof, sewing seeds of doubt about his intent, an argument that might be useful if jurors deliberate his sentence.

The closing statements ended about 11:30 a.m., leaving legal instructions to the jury as the last step before deliberations on Roof’s guilt.

Bruck said Roof did not get his feelings on race from family or friends.

“He didn’t get this from anybody else he knew,” he said.

Bruck portrayed Roof as a solitary figure who developed an obsession that a war existed between whites and blacks that required him to act and to even sacrifice himself, pointing to his statements to the FBI that he had intended to kill himself.

“There was something in him that made him feel he had to do it, and that’s as close as they got to it,” he said of Roof’s motivation.

He said there was something wrong with Roof’s perceptions, pointing to his being unaware he had killed nine people when questioned by the FBI.

Roof, he said, was an odd character, a loner who had hundreds of photos of his cat and wore sweats under his jeans.

Contrasting prosecutors’ arguments that Roof had spent a lot of time planning the murders, Bruck said Roof did not plan much of what he did.

“He had no escape plan, no money, a car full of dirty stuff,” he told the jury.

In discussing Roof’s lack of remorse, he said, “you don’t feel remorseful for what you felt you had to do.”

Bruck concluded by asking jurors to “look beyond the surface.”

“Is there something more to the story?” he asked.

Roof sat staring ahead during Bruck’s closing, much as he had for a federal prosecutor’s closing minutes before.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sustained multiple objections from prosecutors during Bruck’s closing, as he did during the opening of the trial when prosecutors felt Bruck was attempting to take jurors to the penalty phase of the trial before Roof’s guilt was decided. One of the objections came after Bruck attempted to discuss Roof’s mental status, a discussion that Gergel said should take place during a penalty phase.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Curran told jurors in the final closing statement for the government that Bruck’s request to look beyond the surface “is nothing more than a distraction.”

“Nothing undermines that man’s guilt,” he said of Roof.

Earlier Thursday morning, a federal prosecutor told a jury in closing arguments that Dylann Roof held a “tremendous, tremendous hatred” that led him to murder nine parishioners “at their most vulnerable moment” during prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The assistant U.S. attorney also described Roof as a coward and a racist who did not see African-Americans as equals.

“He executes them because he doesn’t think they are more than animals,” Nathan Williams said.

The arguments included photos of the crime scene and of the victims alive, prompting emotional reactions from some family members in the courtroom. Mental health counselors were on hand to assist family members.

Should that panel return a guilty verdict – a near certainty in this case – Roof will dismiss his counselors in favor of representing himself in the sentencing phase, one where those same jurors will decide if he should face a sentence of life imprisonment or execution. Bruck told jurors this could be the last time he represented Roof before them.

On Thursday, Roof’s hatred was described by Williams as “immense, vast and cold and calculated.”

Williams outlined Roof’s planning for the crime and showed the jury a video of Roof in his backyard shooting a handgun. He said the target practice showed the “vastness of his hatred.”

How could someone shoot innocent people while they were on the ground, he asked.

“He thinks they are less than human,” he said.

He contrasted what he said were the heroic actions of the victims with the “executions” by Roof.

“These nine people exemplify a goodness that was greater than his message of hate,” the prosecutor said, his voice rising.

The case against Roof opened more than a week ago, when Jay Richardson, the lead assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors they would hear overwhelming evidence against the 22-year-old.

In the days that followed, Richardson and his team of prosecutors delivered on that promise, one that was bookended by the wrenching testimonies of two adult survivors of that night in June 2015. Between those testimonies delivered by two grandmothers, jurors heard from witnesses who said Roof planned the attacks; they saw his video recorded confession, read his own racist writings and examined solemn crime scene photos depicting the dead.

In his own opening statement, the lead attorney representing Roof conceded guilt, said he might not any call witnesses at all. Instead, David Bruck tried to nudge the panel toward considering a life sentence without release over execution.

For that, he earned objections from Richardson, frustrated that Bruck was attempting to take jurors to the penalty phase of the trial before guilt had been decided. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel agreed, chastising Bruck for stepping outside the bounds of trial rules.

Jurors must consider 33 federal counts against Roof, many of them based on hate crime and obstruction of religion laws.

That Roof intends to dismiss a premiere capital defense team, one that includes four lawyers, appears to stem from a conflict over their belief that Roof suffers from a mental defect or related condition, an assertion they have alluded to in court documents and statements.

No condition has been specified, but before resting his case on Wednesday, Bruck attempted to offer a psychologist and a psychiatrist as witnesses, a move blocked by the judge.

One, Dr. Rachel Loftin, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in autism disorders.

Roof, in a handwritten journal that outlines a racist ideology, noted that he has no use for mental health experts.

“Also I want to state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” he wrote in a statement that appears to have been penned in the months before the Mother Emanuel attack. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”

Though Roof chatted freely with his defense team during courtroom breaks, his demeanor changed as jurors entered the room. He tended to look straight ahead or at the table during proceedings, glancing neither at witnesses nor at a computer monitor to his immediate right, where hundreds of pieces of government evidence – documents, photographs, video recordings – have been displayed.

Given his wooden demeanor, it’s unknown what, if any kind of case he might present at sentencing.

He remained unmoved even when the government called its first witness, survivor Felicia Sanders. She addressed Roof, saying he was sitting with his “head hang down, refusing to even look at me right now.”

Sanders testified the shootings began when Roof raised his Glock to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the 41-year-old leader of the church and a South Carolina state senator, after the group closed its eyes in prayer.

With the first cracks of gunfire, she yelled, “He’s got a gun!” and many in the group numbering 12 scrambled to take cover under folding tables draped with cloths, but the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., described as the backbone of the group, tried to move forward to check on his pastor.

Roof shot the 74-year-old man as others hid under folding tables. Later, when emergency personnel arrived, moving among the victims to check for vital signs, only Simmons showed life. He was carried out on a stretcher, but later died.

The others died where they tried to take cover from Roof, armed with a .45 caliber pistol. Again and again, the shooter discarded spent magazine cartridges, reloaded new ones, and shot victims even as his view of them was sometimes obscured by draped tablecloths left pocked with bullet holes.

More than 70 shots were fired; more than 60 found a human target.

The oldest and youngest to die were related by blood. Tywanza Sanders was a poet, a barber and a vibrant 26-year-old graduate of Allen University. In the last moments of his life, he tried to reach his 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson. As he moved to the elderly woman, his mother, Felicia Sanders, begged him to stop moving.

He asked for water, said he was so thirsty. He died with a hand reaching to Jackson’s short-cropped hair.

Roof was captured the next morning as he drove through Shelby, North Carolina, and in a video recorded confession to FBI agents, was unsure how many people he might have shot. Maybe five, he guessed.

It was nine. His other victims included the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Ethel Lee Lance, 74; the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49 and Myra Thompson, 59.

He knew he left two women alive. He did not mention to agents, perhaps did not know, that Sanders lay atop her 11-year-old granddaughter, nearly suffocating the girl to keep her still, mimicking death.

The child, who prosecutors did not call as a witness, survived.

The 11-year-old was not the only child in the church that evening. In another room, the pastor’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney and their young daughter waited for the Bible study to finish, that they might go home with Rev. Pinckney.

Instead, the 6-year-old girl and her mother heard the cracks of gunfire that claimed not only their husband and father, but also members of their church family.

Tonya Maxwell and Tim Smith, The Greenville (N.C.) News