CHARLESTON, S.C. – To the convicted murderer who sat just feet in front of them, a few family members demanded he look at them, calling out with a sharp, “Dylann Storm Roof!” in frustration that he would not meet their eyes.
Others addressed the self-admitted white supremacist, one whose violence took the lives of nine African American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church here, with a more familiar “Dylann,” in what felt like a subtle commentary on how he had become intertwined in so many lives.
Not once did the 22-year-old turn his head. He did not look to see who called him evil or wished God might grant mercy on his soul or who wanted to recount the profound loss of a loved one.
On Wednesday, a day after a jury determined Roof should pay with his life for his June 17, 2015 attack, Judge Richard Gergel of U.S. District Court sentenced him following more than four hours of victim-impact statements from nearly three dozen people who in emotional statements spoke of grief, anger and love.
Gergel sentenced Roof to 18 death sentences and 15 life sentences, the statutory maximum for each of the 33 federal counts lodged against him.
Before Roof, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of 30 counts of murder in 2015 for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that ultimately killed four victims, had been the most recent person convicted of federal capital crimes. Sixty-three people, all but one of them male, are now on Death Row in the federal system.
“I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t hear an acorn fall out of a tree. Most important, I cannot shut my eyes to pray. I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”
Felicia Sanders, Emanuel AME Church shooting survivor
After Gergel made his announcement, Roof asked the judge to replace his defense team as he begins his appeal.
“I just don’t trust them,” Roof said about the team of capital defenders that is widely regarded as among the best in the country.
Gergel denied the motion, saying his lawyers had been competent and loyal and zealously worked to defend him.
But the bulk of the day was devoted to hearing from those left behind after the shootings.
Denise Dillegard Smalls, a niece of Roof’s oldest victim, invoked the names of three relatives she lost, including Susie Jackson, 87; Tywanza Sanders, 26; and Ethel Lance, 70.
“All I want you to hear is – could you look at me?” Dillegard Smalls said, interrupting herself as Roof refused to turn toward her. “OK, I’m going to accept that.
“Understand at Susie’s house, at Tywanza’s house, at Ethel Lance’s house, at all the nine houses, at Mother Emanuel’s house, at the statehouse, at the White House, always remember justice has been served,” Smalls said. “Remember, what you got yesterday, you deserve it.”
The morning began with Felicia Sanders, who survived the attack and shielded her 11-year-old granddaughter as Roof fired more than 70 gunshots around them.
She addressed him as Dylann Storm Roof, saying he deserved the respect that he did not show to her beloved Aunt Susie Jackson and son, Tywanza Sanders, whom she called “my baby.”
“Yes, I know you. You are in my head. I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t hear an acorn fall out of a tree,” Sanders said of the sounds.
Then she talked about the moment when Roof pulled out his .45-caliber Glock as parishioners bowed their heads.
“I still don’t want you to die. I want you be to be able to sit in that cell.”
The Rev. Sharon Risher, Dallas
“Most important, I cannot shut my eyes to pray,” she said. “I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”
Forgiving Roof has been the easy part, Felicia Sanders said. She worries about the granddaughter she cares for who survived that horror and showed those in the courtroom her battered and torn Bible, the same one she carried to that Wednesday night Bible study.
The pages had been cleaned of blood, she said, but the words remained intact.
“You can’t help someone who don’t want to help themselves, and that is you,” she said to Roof, adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”
Felicia Sanders’ daughter, Shirrene Goss, told Roof that he neither started the race war he had wanted nor managed to rid the world of black people or any of the other groups he had maligned in his writings.
“You are going to realize you didn’t have to do this, and it’s going to bring you to your knees. You’re going to ask – no you’re going to have to beg – for mercy,” she said. “You deserved every bit of the sentence you received.”
The Rev. Sharon Risher of Dallas, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, and has advocated for gun reform since the attack on Mother Emanuel, told Roof that she had taken an unpopular stance on his punishment.
“Dylann, I was very vocal about you not getting the death penalty,” Risher said.
“I still don’t want you to die. I want you be to be able to sit in that cell,” she said. “You have made them martyrs. You have made them the face of America. You have opened doors and given me a platform I would have never had.”
She said she would go to her grave illuminating the lives lost.
On the night of the shooting, Myra Thompson, 59, was leading the Bible study for the first time and took the small group through the parable of the sower from the Gospel of Mark 4:3-20 about seeds that are cast on fertile vs. barren soil. Like most of the slain, she was shot multiple times as she tried to take cover beneath folding tables.
Thompson’s sister, Blondell Gadsen, told the court she continues to have questions about Roof but knows they will not be answered.
“I am so glad he’s convicted and making us believe and know there’s nothing mentally wrong with him,” Gadsen said, referencing Roof’s decision to serve as his own attorney. The move blocked his defense team from presenting mental health evidence. “When you’re heart is empty, there’s no way to give and receive love.”
Like several other speakers, she thanked the court, jury and prosecutors for their service, comments that prompted the judge to note that he plans to release information related to two closed-door competency hearings regarding Roof.
Defense lawyers had requested the hearings because of concerns that Roof was not able to represent himself.
“You will know that,” Gergel said. “You will get access to all of that.”
The last person to speak was the Rev. Eric Manning, the present pastor of Mother Emanuel, which lost the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in the attack.
“For the past 19 months, Mother Emanuel has gone through its struggles its challenges,” Manning told the court, saying that in the quiet of the lower-level room where so many lost their lives, parishioners can hear the echoes of the Holy Spirit. “As we have tried our best to move forward, at times we have made several mistakes. At times we have questions.”
But where some speakers called Roof evil, subhuman or an animal, Manning extended an olive branch, saying God still finds value in him, not for material things “but because you are you. He would go any distance and pay any price just to possess you. In fact he did, not just for you but for all of us, when he gave his only begotten son.”
“God still loves you,” Manning said, addressing Roof directly. “If you repent and seek his forgiveness, he will surely do that for you.”
Follow Tonya Maxwell on Twitter: @factsbymax
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