Jurors find Dylann Roof guilty of all 33 counts in hate-crime shootings at South Carolina church
The 22-year-old man charged with killing nine black worshipers at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. faces two death penalty trials, a first in U.S. history.
Dylann Roof, the white supremacist charged with fatally shooting nine black members of a Bible study class in South Carolina, stood stiffly in a federal courtroom Thursday as the jury forewoman repeated eight words, over and over again:
“We find the defendant, Dylann Storm Roof, guilty.”
After about two hours of deliberation, the jury found Roof guilty of all 33 counts in the June 17, 2015, massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, including committing a hate crime against black victims, obstructing the exercise of religion and using a firearm to commit murder.
Roof, wearing a blue cable-knit sweater, stared blankly ahead as the verdicts were read, resting the tips of his forefingers on a wooden table and nervously twisting his mouth.
But the verdicts were not a surprise. Jurors had watched Roof confess in a taped FBI interview. They had heard from two survivors who identified him as the shooter. They had seen closed-circuit television footage of him exiting the scene of the massacre with the murder weapon in his hand.
After U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel thanked the jury of three blacks and nine whites, the family members of the victims, including survivors Felicia Sanders and Jennifer Pinckney, exited the court smiling.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley issued a statement saying, “It is my hope that the survivors, the families, and the people of South Carolina can find some peace in the fact that justice has been served.”
The stage is now set for the punishment phase, scheduled to begin Jan. 3. In a rare move, Roof, a high school dropout, has chosen to defend himself in the sentencing phase, when the jurors will decide whether to impose life in prison or death. The move effectively relegates defense attorney David Bruck to a back seat for a critical part of the trial.
Roof’s case is the first in which the federal government has sought the death penalty under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. If the jury decides to impose the death penalty, Roof will be the first person in U.S. history sentenced to death in a federal hate-crimes trial.
After presenting a mass of evidence, prosecutors wrapped up their case earlier Thursday, arguing the jury had a simple task to hold the “cold and calculated” 22-year-old accountable for “every round he fired.”
“A man of immense hatred walked that room shooting person after person after person,” Asst. U.S. Atty. Nathan Williams told the jury. “A man whose actions show him to be a person of tremendous cowardice, shooting them when they had their eyes closed, shooting them when they were in prayer.”
“There is no doubt in this case,” Williams said as he ran through charges that Roof committed hate crimes resulting in death. “He targeted those individuals because of their race.”
“They were praying. They were shot,” he said as he outlined charges that Roof had engaged in the obstruction of the exercise of religion. “This is easy.”
Bruck did not dispute the government’s evidence. Instead, he urged jurors to dig deeper and look “beyond the surface” in considering what motivated his client to commit the crime.
“Reaching a conclusion about what these crimes were, and who committed them, is pretty straightforward,” Bruck told the jury. “The issue in this case from the beginning has been, and it continues to be, why?”
Roof, the lawyer said, was “delusional,” “illogical,” and full of “mad energy.”
“There is something wrong with his perceptions,” Bruck said.
Repeatedly, Gergel reprimanded Bruck for bringing up Roof’s mental state.
The Department of Justice brought 33 charges against Roof: 12 counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, 12 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion and nine counts of using a firearm to commit murder. It is seeking the death penalty on the basis of Roof’s “lack of remorse” and his “animosity towards African Americans.”
Prosecutors spent six days methodically outlining their case against Roof, introducing a long procession of first responders, FBI agents, expert witnesses and survivors of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church.
Roof has not stated publicly any reasons for representing himself. Yet many following the case believe he is seeking to hide evidence of mental instability that his lawyers would highlight in a bid to spare his life.
Over the last week Bruck repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to present the jury with evidence that would show Roof has some form of mental illness or impairment.
On Wednesday, after the prosecution rested its case, Gergel refused to let Bruck introduce two mental health experts — a psychiatrist and a psychologist — arguing that such testimony had no bearing on the issue of his guilt, the State newspaper reported. After Roof declined to testify, Bruck rested his case.
A rift between Roof and his defense team emerged last month when Roof’s attorneys raised questions about their client’s mental state, asking the judge to declare Roof incompetent to stand trial. Gergel ordered Roof to take a psychiatric competency assessment, yet little is known about Roof’s mental condition because the two-day hearing was closed to the public.
Ultimately, Gergel found Roof capable of standing trial, stating he had an “extremely high IQ” and was able to understand legal proceedings. Gergel then allowed Roof to represent himself.
In a court motion before the trial began, Roof’s attorneys noted that capital defendants sometimes choose to represent themselves so they can prevent presentation of evidence during the sentencing phase that they “cannot bear to have revealed.”
On Thursday, Bruck drew attention to example after example of Roof’s odd behavior: his apparent inability, a day after the crime, to judge how many people he had killed; his unwillingness to make small talk with investigators; his admission to FBI agents that he didn’t have a best friend.
“He tells the FBI, ‘I’m not delusional,’” Bruck said to the jury. “When someone says that, common sense tells you he might be delusional.”
His client, he noted, wore sweatpants under his jeans in the sweltering South Carolina heat, and took hundreds of photos of his cat, yet none of his fellow human beings.
Bruck said Roof was not an original thinker, but someone “regurgitating, in whole paragraphs, slogans and facts, bits and pieces.… He downloaded from the Internet directly into his brain.”
“Don’t be distracted by the defense counsel arguments suggesting there’s a deeper meaning to this,” Asst. U.S. attorney Stephen Curran countered. “It’s not that complicated.… The answer is obvious. The reason is violent racism still exists.… There are still people who will murder, still people who will kill, because of the color of someone’s skin.”
Nothing the defense attorney said, Curran argued, came close to undermining Roof’s guilt.
“He was 21 when he did this,” Curran said. “He was old enough to vote. He was old enough to join the military.… He was old enough to buy a gun. He certainly was old enough to understand the horrific nature of what he was planning to do. He certainly is old enough to be held accountable.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
4:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with new details throughout.
12:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with the Roof’s conviction.
12:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with details including the beginning of jury deliberations.
This article was originally published at 7:05 a.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.