White supremacist Dylann Roof spoke directly to jurors for the first time Wednesday, but he did not explain why he gunned down nine black parishioners at a South Carolina Bible study class, apologize or ask the panel to spare his life.
Roof instead focused on telling jurors in his death penalty hearing that he did not have mental health problems.
“Other than the fact that I trust people that I shouldn’t, there is nothing wrong with me psychologically,” Roof said softly during a short opening statement.
The 22-year-old high school dropout, who was convicted last month and chose to represent himself during the sentencing phase of the trial, told jurors that they may have heard that he wanted to prevent his attorneys from presenting evidence of mental health issues.
“That is absolutely true,” he said calmly, if somewhat stiffly, from a lectern. “But it isn’t because I have a mental illness that I don’t want you to know about, and it isn’t because I’m trying to keep it a secret from you. The point is I’m not going to lie to you, either by myself or through someone else.”
The stakes are high for Roof, who was found guilty last month of 33 counts in the June 2015 massacre, including multiple counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, obstructing the exercise of religion and using a firearm to commit murder.
If the jury of 10 women and two men votes unanimously in favor of the death penalty, Roof could become the first person in U.S. history sentenced to death in a federal hate-crime trial.
In an opening statement that began to lay out the prosecution's case for the death penalty, Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Williams told jurors that Roof had targeted his victims at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because of the color of their skin and had shown no remorse.
Six weeks after Roof's arrest, Williams told the jury, a journal was found in his jail cell.
“I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” Roof wrote in the journal. “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Roof wrote that he did feel sorry, however, for the “innocent white children forced to live in this sick country” and “the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower race.”
“I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself,” he wrote. “I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place.”
The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty on the basis of Roof’s significant premeditation, lack of remorse and animosity toward African Americans. Though the government expects to call as many as 38 witnesses in an attempt to persuade jurors that Roof should be executed, Roof plans on calling no witnesses and presenting no evidence.
“You will see countless tears shed in this courtroom,” Williams said. “When you see those tears, know that the defendant thinks every one is worth it.”
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled Roof competent to represent himself during sentencing. The decision, announced after a daylong hearing that was closed to the public, represented another blow for Roof’s court-appointed attorneys, who have failed to persuade their client that his best chance of avoiding execution is a mental health defense.
Before courtroom proceedings got underway, the judge issued firm ground rules, specifying that both Roof and prosecuting attorneys address the jury from a center lectern and not attempt to approach the jury or the witness stand.
“What I don’t want is a spectacle,” Gergel said, adding that at the same time, “I don’t want to give the impression to the jury that Mr. Roof is being treated differently.”
Prosecutors first called Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s pastor, a state senator and the father of two girls. On the night of the massacre, she was in her husband’s church office with their youngest daughter, Malana, who was 6, when they heard a loud “pop, pop, pop.”
At first, she assumed a generator had exploded. But as she began to crack open the door, she realized it was gunfire. Quickly, she closed and locked the door, grabbed Malana and cowered beneath a desk in a backroom.
“I’m not crazy,” she heard the gunman say as he paced the room. “I have to do this.”
Then the doorknob started to turn.
"A chill came completely over me," she said. "I was like, 'This is it. This is it for us.' "
All of a sudden, she heard him turn and walk out of the church, allowing her to crawl out from her hiding place and reach for her phone to call 911.
“Daddy’s dead,” her daughter whispered in the background as she frantically talked to an operator.
“No, baby, no,” Pinckney replied.
After the audio recording of the 911 call was played to the court, Pinckney said the hardest thing she had ever had to do was tell her daughters that their father had been killed. She had been spared, she told the court, in order to continue her husband’s legacy.
“It wasn’t my time or my daughter’s time,” she said. “God is a just God, and I don’t see God taking both parents away from two small kids.”
Roof made no effort to cross-examine Pinckney.
“No questions,” he said.
Roof, who faces death by lethal injection or life in prison, has the right to represent himself under the 6th Amendment. Yet Gergel has called his decision “unwise,” and many legal experts, including Roof’s attorneys, have questioned whether he can adequately represent himself in a capital case, as well as his decision to withhold potentially crucial evidence about his mental health.
Typically during the penalty phase of a trial, the defense presents evidence about background issues such as childhood upbringing and mental health problems to provide deeper insight into the defendant and encourage jurors to be more lenient.
Yet from the beginning, Roof has balked against the idea of defending himself on the basis that he is mentally ill. “I am morally opposed to psychology,” he scrawled in a journal that investigators found in his car after the massacre. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
If Roof is sentenced to death, the dispute about his choice to represent himself and his withholding of information about his mental health is likely to lead to multiple appeals, legal experts said.
Before the trial began, a rift emerged between Roof and his attorneys as they raised questions about their client’s mental state, asking the judge to declare Roof incompetent to stand trial. Capital defendants often choose to represent themselves “in order to prevent presentation of mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of their trials that they cannot bear to have revealed,” they noted in a court motion.
After ordering two psychiatric competency assessments of Roof, Gergel found him capable of standing trial, stating that he had an “extremely high IQ” and was able to understand legal proceedings.
During the guilt portion of the trial, Roof attorney David Bruck tried repeatedly to raise the issue of mental illness, drawing attention to his client’s “abnormal” and “delusional” behavior.
Roof, he said, was a loner who took hundreds of photos of his cat, yet appeared to have no close connection with any human.
This isolation stood in stark contrast to his victims' fellowship. One by one, family and friends of slain churchgoers such as Clementa Pinckney and Myra Thompson, a retired teacher who led the fateful Bible class, took to the witness stand to recount their loved ones’ strong family and community bonds.
“Beyond death, he’s still my brother,” Kylon Middleton, a pastor, said of his longtime friend Clementa Pinckney. “Beyond death, his girls still have a place in my heart. Beyond death, his wife still has a shoulder to cry on.”
As the day came to a close, the Rev. Anthony Thompson sobbed as he contemplated a future without his wife, Myra.
“What am I here for?” he said, bowing his head and clasping his hands. “She’s gone…. I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t know what to do. She was everything I had; she was everything I ever wanted. My life will never be the same. Never, never, never.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
3:50 p.m.: The story was updated with testimony from the court hearing.
10:55 a.m.: The story was updated throughout with Times reporting.
The story was originally published at 8:35 a.m.