In stark and meticulous detail, federal prosecutors on Wednesday began to lay out their case against Dylann Roof, the self-avowed white supremacist charged with killing nine black worshipers at the historic Emanuel AME Church, describing him as “cold and calculated” as he pulled out a Glock .45-caliber pistol and fired more than 70 shots at a Bible study class.
“He seemed to the 12 to be harmless,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Julius “Jay” Richardson told jurors, describing each of the congregants who had gathered at the church June 17, 2015, to read the Book of Mark’s Parable of the Sower.
“Little did they know what a cold and hateful heart he had. … He hadn’t come to the Bible study to hear the good word. He hadn’t come to hear the Lord,” Richardson said in his opening statement.
“He chose to execute nine good, innocent men and women. And he chose to do so out of a callous hatred of the color of their skin.”
Roof’s defense team did not disagree. “There’s not a great deal of dispute about the facts,” his court-appointed attorney, David Bruck, admitted, noting that he did not expect to call any witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial.
Instead, Bruck raised questions about Roof’s mental and emotional stability, reminding jurors that Roof had chosen not to have an attorney during the penalty phase of the trial. He urged them to pay close attention to Roof’s cold and casual demeanor, his stiff body language, as well as his statement to investigators that “I don’t have a best friend.”
“In fairness and in mercy, our society does not invoke the death penalty if there are reasons to choose life, a life in prison,” Bruck said. “You will see a crime that is driven by fear. Where did it come from? Why would someone be so afraid?”
Roof, dressed in a gray-and-white prison jumpsuit, sat still and showed no emotion as attorneys, a churchgoer who attended the Bible study, and a parade of first responders recounted the massacre and its aftermath. Head fixed, he stared impassively at a stack of legal documents.
In a 33-count indictment, the Department of Justice has charged Roof with 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 sought the death penalty on the basis that Roof “demonstrated a lack of remorse” and “his animosity towards African Americans played a role in the murders.”
Felicia Sanders, a hairstylist and church usher who survived the massacre yet lost her 26-year-old son, testified Wednesday that her fellow parishioners had welcomed Roof into the study session. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s senior pastor, even invited Roof to take a seat next to him and handed him a Bible.
Bible study began with a prayer, she said, and Dylan sat passively, with his head down.
“We stood up, shut our eyes to say a prayer... and a loud sound went off,” she testified. The room got dark. I screamed ‘It’s a gun.’ But by then he had already shot the Rev. Pinckney.”
As bullets zipped across the room, Sanders said she grabbed Camia Terry, her 11-year-old granddaughter, and ducked under a table.
“Be quiet,” she hushed Camia, muzzling her face so tightly she worried she might suffocate her. “Just play dead,” she whispered.
As Roof told another parishioner he would let her live so she could tell the story of what he had done, her son Tywanza stood up and asked Roof why he was shooting.
“The defendant over there, with his head down, who refuses to look at me right now, told my son, ‘I have to do this because you’re raping our women and y’all are taking over the world,’” Sanders said.
“My son said, ‘You don’t have to do this,. We don’t mean you no harm.’” She paused. “He put about five bullets in my son.”
After an extraordinary legal back-and-forth between Dylann Roof and his attorneys, many in Charleston and across the nation are bracing for an ugly courtroom spectacle.
Last week, Roof chose to represent himself during the initial stages of jury selection. Yet on Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel agreed to Roof’s request to reinstate his legal team for the guilt phase of the trial. Roof still plans to represent himself during the penalty phase, when the jury would decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison.
Reinstating Roof’s lawyers for the bulk of the trial ends the unsettling prospect that he would personally examine survivors and family members of victims who may testify. Yet it allows the possibility that the 22-year-old may sabotage his sentencing, potentially withholding information about his mental health and encouraging a jury to send him to death row.
“This is going to be hard to sit through, almost unbearable at times,” Bruck told the jury, warning them they would see scenes of violence and death, as well as the grief of family members and survivors “who did not deserve any of this.”
“You are going to feel enormous sympathy, as well you should,” he said. “But you have a job to go deeper, to go beyond the surface and ask questions that no one else is required to ask.”
For many onlookers here and across the country, the facts of the massacre are clear: Several churchgoers witnessed Roof shoot their fellow parishioners and pastor; prosecutors allege that Roof confessed after he was captured, and even Roof’s attorneys note that their client has consistently offered to plead guilty.
“The sole issue,” they argued in a filing last week, is “whether the federal death penalty will be inflicted.”
Early on, Roof’s attorneys filed paperwork stating they planned to introduce expert evidence that would demonstrate “mental disease or defect or any other mental condition bearing on the issue of punishment.”
In a court motion last week, they noted that 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.”
“It appears to me that Dylann Roof really wants to live,” said Christopher Adams, a Charleston attorney who specializes in federal court defenses. “However, it seems equally clear he would rather die and get sentenced to death than for the world and the jurors to find out about his mental health situation.”
Although a defendant has a constitutional right to represent himself under the 6th Amendment, the 8th Amendment guarantees the right to a fair sentencing, which requires heightened scrutiny in a capital case. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether a defendant who faces the death penalty may self-represent and deprive the jurors of crucial sentencing information.
There’s a huge difference in the mind of a jury between someone who is evil and despicable and someone who is mentally ill,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “When an emotionally disturbed or mentally ill defendant prevents the jury from learning of the nature and extent of his mental illness or disturbance, it has an effect that reverberates through the entire court proceedings.”
The conflict between Roof and his attorneys became public last month when the defense team raised questions about his mental state, asking the judge to declare him incompetent to stand trial. Judge Gergel ordered Roof to take a psychiatric competency assessment, but the precise nature of Roof’s mental health remains unclear because the two-day hearing was closed to the public.
Ultimately, Gergel found Roof capable of standing trial, arguing that the ninth-grade high school dropout had an “extremely high IQ” and was able to understand courtroom proceedings. Yet legal experts note that there is a clear difference between intellectual ability and judgment. “You can have an understanding of the legal process, but that does not mean you are any less mentally ill or emotionally disturbed,” Dunham said.
Reluctantly, Gergel allowed Roof to represent himself, saying he considered it “strategically unwise” but “a decision you have the right to make,” according to the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper. Roof’s death penalty attorney, David Bruck, had his role reduced to standby counsel, advising Roof but unable to make objections or question witnesses.
As Roof struggled to articulate points in the first part of jury selection last week and took on a largely passive role, the judge would not allow his standby counsel to make objections. As a result, narrowing the field to several dozen potential jurors, a process that was expected to take weeks, was over within a week. His former lawyers argued in a motion that the government risked violating Roof’s constitutional rights by refusing to “authorize reasonable, limited assistance” and allow him to “call on experienced counsel the Court appointed to stand by him to help him find the words he needs.”
Some legal observers say Roof’s initial decision to waive counsel has already had an irreversible impact on the trial, allowing the bulk of jury selection to go on without extended questioning by experienced death penalty attorneys. Many observers expect appeals.
On Sunday, Roof filed a motion asking Gergel to let the defense team represent him again. “I would like to ask if my lawyers can represent me for the guilt phase of the trial only,” he requested in a note that was handwritten on lined paper. “Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial?”
As Gergel granted Roof permission to bring his legal team back on board, he warned Roof he could not change his mind again if he disagrees with their performance. He can, however, reverse his decision to represent himself during sentencing.
It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for a death row defendant to act as his own attorney — particularly in a case in which a highly experienced legal team has been provided.
Last year, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a white supremacist who killed three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas, received the death penalty after representing himself. He told jurors he didn’t care what sentence was handed down and yelled, “Heil, Hitler!” after he was sentenced to death.
In 2013, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at the Ft. Hood military base in Texas, confessed to the shootings in his opening statement, arguing that he had switched sides to become a guerrilla fighter defending the Taliban. During his trial, he did not call witnesses or offer testimony.
Splitting representation with attorneys during the course of the trial, as Roof is proposing, is even more rare. Occasionally, a defendant might represent himself at trial and then, upon becoming despondent after the verdict, turn to a lawyer for the penalty phase. But it is highly unusual for a defendant to ask an attorney to represent him only for the guilt phase.
“Everything about this case is unique,” Dunham said. “I’m not sure we can be surprised by anything that might happen.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from the trial.
1:22 p.m.: This article was updated with the testimony of Felicia Sanders.
10:57 a.m.: This article was updated with opening statements from the prosecutor and the defense attorney.
7:45 a.m.: This article was updated with information about jury selection.
This article was originally published at 4 a.m.