CHARLESTON, South Carolina — An unrepentant Dylann Roof was sentenced to death Tuesday for fatally shooting nine black church members during a Bible study session, becoming the first person ordered executed for a federal hate crime.
A jury deliberated for about three hours before returning with the decision, capping a trial in which the 22-year-old avowed white supremacist did not fight for his life or show any remorse. He served as his own attorney during sentencing and never asked for forgiveness or mercy or explained the massacre.
Hours earlier, Roof threw away one last chance to plead for his life, telling jurors, “I still feel like I had to do it.”
The slain included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor and a state senator, as well as other pillars of the community: a high school track coach, the church sexton, a librarian and an aspiring poet. They all shared deep devotion to the church, known as Mother Emanuel, and passed that faith along to their families, many of whom offered Roof forgiveness when he appeared in court just days after the attack.
As Roof spoke Tuesday for about five minutes, every juror looked directly at him. A few nodded as he reminded them that they said during jury selection they could fairly weigh the factors of his case. Only one of them, he noted, had to disagree to spare him from a lethal injection.
“I have the right to ask you to give me a life sentence, but I’m not sure what good it would do anyway,” he said.
When the verdict was read, he stood stoic. Several family members of victims wiped away quiet tears.
Roof told FBI agents when they arrested him after the June 17, 2015, slayings that he wanted the shootings to bring back segregation or perhaps start a race war. Instead, the slayings had a unifying effect, as South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its Statehouse for the first time in more than 50 years. Other states followed suit, taking down Confederate banners and monuments. Roof had posed with the flag in photos.
Malcolm Graham, whose sister Cynthia Hurd was slain, said the jury made the right decision.
“There is no room in America’s smallest jail cell for hatred, racism and discrimination,” he said from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The journey for me and my family today has come to an end.”
One of Hurd’s other brothers, Melvin Graham, said the jury’s decision “was a very hollow victory” because his sister is still gone.
“He decided the day, the hour and minute my sister was going to die. Now someone is going to do it for him,” he said.
Roof specifically selected Emanuel AME Church, the South’s oldest black church, to carry out the cold, calculated slaughter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said.
The 12 people he targeted opened the door for a stranger with a smile, he said. Three people survived the attack.
“They welcomed a 13th person that night … with a kind word, a Bible, a handout and a chair,” Richardson said during his closing argument. “He had come with a hateful heart and a Glock .45.”
The gunman sat with the Bible study group for about 45 minutes. During the final prayer – when everyone’s eyes were closed – he started firing. He stood over some of the fallen victims, shooting them again as they lay on the floor, Richardson said.
The prosecutor reminded jurors about each one of the victims and the bloody scene that Roof left in the church’s lower level.
Nearly two dozen friends and relatives of the victims testified during the sentencing phase of the trial. They shared cherished memories and talked about a future without a mother, father, sister or brother. They shed tears, and their voices shook, but none of them said whether Roof should face the death penalty.
The prosecutor reminded jurors that Clementa Pinckney would be remembered for singing goofy songs and watching cartoons with his young daughters. In a sign of perhaps how important that testimony was, jurors re-watched a speech by Pinckney in which he talked about the history of Emanuel and its mission.
The jury convicted Roof last month of all 33 federal charges he faced, including hate crimes. He never explained his actions to jurors, saying only that “anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason for it.”
Roof insisted that he was not mentally ill and did not call any witnesses or present any evidence.
In one of his journals, he wrote that he did not believe in psychology, calling it “a Jewish invention” that “does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
His attorneys said he did not want to present any evidence that might embarrass him or his family.
After he was sentenced, Roof asked a judge to appoint him new attorneys, but the judge said he was not inclined to do so because they had performed “admirably.”
“We are sorry that, despite our best efforts, the legal proceedings have shed so little light on the reasons for this tragedy,” the attorneys said in a veiled reference to the mental health issues they wanted to present.
A judge will formally sentence him during a hearing Wednesday. Roof also faces a death penalty trial in state court.
The last person sent to federal death row was Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2015.
Story: Med Kinnard, Jeffrey Collins