Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was convicted Thursday of all 33 counts, setting the stage for the jury to decide whether he will get the death penalty.
Roof, who confessed to the June 17, 2015, killings at the historic black church, was found guilty of all charges ranging from murder to federal hate crimes.
Now the jury will prepare to hear more evidence and testimony during a penalty phase, scheduled to start on Jan. 3, 2017, where they will decide whether to sentence the 22-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist to death or life in prison without parole.
The verdict capped off the two-week-long guilt phase of the trial where the jury heard six days of testimony from the prosecution. Roof’s defense counsel did very little cross-examining of the government’s witnesses, and when the time came to call witnesses on the defendant’s behalf, they called none. Roof also declined to testify on his own behalf.
Prosecutors opened and concluded their case by putting two survivors from the attack — church parishioners Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, who, like the victims, were at Emanuel AME Church to attend a Wednesday night Bible study that evening.
Sanders, whose 26-year-old son Tywanza Sanders was shot and killed by Roof, was the first witness called by the prosecution. She recounted for the jury her last moments with her son.
“I said, ‘I love you, Tywanza, I love you, Tywanza,’” Sanders said, when asked her last words to her son. “He said, ‘I love you too, mom.’
“Then I watched my son die. I watched him take his last breath.”
Her testimony closed with one of the most dramatic moments of the trial when defense attorney David Bruck asked Sanders what Roof said to her before for fleeing the crime scene.
“He said he was going to kill himself. And I was counting on that,” Sanders responded. “He is evil. There is no place on Earth for him except the pit of hell.”
Sanders’ remark about Roof going to hell prompted a mistrial motion from the defense, arguing that she was inappropriately commenting on what sentence she thought Roof deserved. During a heated argument in court, lead prosecutor Jay Richardson rebutted that notion.
“She is not commenting on what the appropriate sentence is,” Richardson said. “She is saying no matter how or why he dies, that is where he is going.”
Ultimately, Judge Richard Gergel decided not to declare a mistrial.
During Sheppard’s testimony, the prosecution revealed that she had called 911 while Roof was still inside the church.
“He’s coming, he’s coming, he coming,” Sheppard can be heard on tape telling the 911 dispatcher.
“He’s got [the gun] in his hand. He’s reloading,” she told the dispatcher, who urged her to stay as quiet as she possibly could.
During the attack, Roof found Sheppard hiding under table inside the fellowship hall, praying out loud. He then told her to shut up and asked her if she had been shot. When she said no, Roof explained that he would leave her alive to “tell his story,” Sheppard told the jury.
When it was the defense’s turn to cross-examine Sheppard, Bruck stood up and said, “Ms. Sheppard, I am so sorry. I have no questions.”
Through the testimony of the two women, the jury learned about the futile attempts made by victims to stop Roof during his assault. They said that after Roof shot his first victim, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Daniel Simmons approached Roof in an effort to stop him before being shot himself.
After being shot once, Tywanza Sanders pushed himself to his elbows, Sheppard said, and asked Roof, “Why are you doing this?” When Sanders added, “We mean you no harm,” Roof then emptied his clip into him.
Testimony from the two survivors bookended days of chilling testimony and visual exhibits that revealed the depth of carnage that unfolded inside the church.
Brittany Burke, formerly of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the lead crime scene investigator on the case, walked the jury through her team’s cataloging of 117 pieces of evidence found inside the church, including 74 shell casings or bullet fragments and seven gun magazines.
While Burke testified, prosecutors showed the jury graphic crime scene photos depicting the mutilated bodies of the victims, lying in pools of blood and huddled under the church room tables that they tried to use as shields.
Burke identified each of the bodies in the pictures and told the jury how many bullets or fragments were recovered from each body. Based on the investigation, 87-year-old victim Susie Jackson was shot the most, with 11 bullets or pieces of fragments found inside her.
During the presentation of crime scene images, Roof refused to look at the screen. Instead, facing forward in his chair, he stared down at the defense table and remained almost motionless.
To show the premeditation that went into the attack, the prosecution used writings from Roof’s journal, his website, and a slew of racist photos found on a digital camera at his mother’s house. They also presented evidence showing that Roof visited Emanuel AME and called the church to inquire about worship hours in the months leading up to the shooting.
And in a chilling twist, crime scene investigators testified that they found a lists of other black churches in the area, their phone numbers and addresses scrawled on pieces of paper, inside a backpack that was in Roof’s car.
Roof’s guilt was never in doubt at any point during the trial. In fact, Bruck told the jury that his client was guilty during his opening statement, saying Roof “is the person who did this.” During his closing argument, Bruck then reminded the jury that Roof had carried out the attack.
One unknown factor hanging over the trial is whether Roof will go on to represent himself during the penalty phase, which he has expressed to the judge that he plans to do.
Roof had been slated to act as his own attorney during the guilt phase, but he changed his mind on the eve of opening statements. Then on the first day of the trial, Roof told the judge that he wished for Bruck to act as lead counsel, but only during the guilt phase.
Unsure how much opportunity, if any, he will get during the sentencing phase to try to save his client’s life, Bruck, the veteran capital defense attorney, tried to inject as much evidence of mitigating factors as he could during the guilt phase — a strategy that the prosecution often objected to.
During his closing argument, Bruck painted his client as a mentally disturbed loner with no friends and whose “motivation came from things that he saw on the internet.”
Referring to Roof’s manifesto and website where he discussed researching topics such as the Trayvon Martin shooting and black-on-white crime, Bruck said that Roof was “simply regurgitating” from “bits and pieces of stuff he has downloaded directly from the internet into his brain.”
Bruck showed the jury photos of Roof wearing a pillowcase on his head to look like a KKK member and lighting an American flag on fire, calling the acts “imitation” pulled from the “forest of stuff” that he digested while conducting research.
He talked about Roof’s plan to kill himself as evidence that this act was not as calculated as the prosecution had argued, claiming that Roof had no “escape plan.”
“You have taken an oath to look beyond on the surface, to think everything through, to question everything,” Bruck said, in an effort to send the jurors a message geared toward the next phase of the trial where they decide Roof’s penalty. “Look beyond the surface.”
During his closing argument, assistant prosecutor Nathan Williams told the jurors, ”What we’ve seen over the last six days is a tremendous, tremendous amount of hatred.”
Williams called Roof “a man of immense hatred” but also said he showed “tremendous cowardice” in targeting the “most vulnerable.” Roof had said during his confession to the FBI that he decided on the church as a target because he believed that a group of worshippers were unlikely to shoot back.
“There is no bravery in this defendant. But there is bravery in this case,” Williams said. He called both Simmons and Tywanza Sanders “heroes” for standing up to Roof during the attack.
During their rebuttal to the defense, the government called Bruck’s instruction to look beyond the surface “nothing more than a distraction.”
In their final words to the jury, the prosecutors told them that “mental illness had nothing to do with” the crime.
They added that “we all have access to the internet” and Roof made a conscious and thoughtful choice to access the “bad stuff” during his radicalization.
On Bruck’s telling of the jury to examine the “why,” the prosecution said that the evidence of why Roof did what he did can be found in his journal, his website, and the confession that he gave to the FBI.
“He is not shy about explaining what he did,” the prosecution told the jury, calling Roof “eager” to tell his story.
After the verdict was read, Judge Gergel asked Roof again if he still intended to self-represent during the next phase of the trial. Roof said yes.
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