A federal judge in South Carolina formally sentenced mass murderer Dylann Roof to death on Wednesday, one day after jury members recommended he be executed for killing nine people through gunfire inside an Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. The victims, all African-Americans, had been attending a prayer service. Roof is the first person to be sentenced to death in a federal trial that included hate crimes' charges, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In all, Roof, 22, was charged with 33 hate crimes.
Before U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel read Roof's sentence, he opened the court's floor to 22 family members and friends of those who died in the gun attack. Roof kept his eyes down, as each took the stand and addressed him directly, making victim impact statements, according to reporters in the courtroom.
All expressed anguish and frustration. Some described their hatred of Roof. Others voiced forgiveness, reports NPR.
"Since June 17th, I've gotten to know you," said Felicia Sanders, who survived the shooting but lost her son, Tywanza, and her aunt, Susie Jackson, reports Fox News. "Yes, I know you because you're in my head. You're in my head every day. You've made me develop a lot of 'I can'ts.' I can't hear balloons pop. I can't hear firework.
"And most importantly, I cannot shut my eyes to pray. Even when I try, I cannot because I have to keep my eyes open to see everyone around me."
But Sanders moved into a different frame of mind, according to the Post and Courier, and said, "Yes, I forgive you. That was the easiest thing I had to do. ... But you can't help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. May God have mercy on your soul."
"I forgive you," said Dan Simmons Jr., whose father, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., was killed in the church massacre. "I know that you don't understand that. But God requires me to forgive you. I forgive you. He also requires me to plead and pray for you. And I do that."
"Dylann! Dylann! I know that you can hear me," said Jamie Scott, whose nephew Tywanza Sanders was killed. "I wish you would look at me, boy, but I know that you can hear me," she was quoted as saying by Charleston's Post and Courier.
"'How dare you sit here every day looking dumb-faced, and acting like you did nothing wrong,' " the newspaper said Ashland Temoney yelled at Roof, who murdered Temoney's aunt, DePayne Middleton.
"You are the biggest coward I have ever seen in my life," Temoney told Roof.
South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin said family members in the courtroom embraced after the jury recommended the sentence on Tuesday.
Lead attorney David Bruck suggested in a statement that his team intends to appeal the sentence.
Under federal sentencing laws, a death penalty can be imposed only if all 12 jurors agree on it, and the judge cannot overrule the jury's decision.
After Roof was sentenced, he asked for new attorneys, saying he did not trust his defense team, which includes multiple experienced capital punishment defense lawyers. During the guilt portion of the trial, Roof's lawyers actively defended him, but Roof chose to represent himself during the penalty phase, with his attorneys providing backup counsel.
Gergel denied the request, and gave Roof 14 days to file an appeal if he wishes. The judge said, "This hate, this viciousness, this moral depravity, will not go unanswered."
Roof is facing separate murder charges brought by the state of South Carolina, which is also seeking the death penalty.
See prior coverage from The Gospel Herald:
Roof told investigators his beliefs about race were shaped by web-based elements after an initial Google search for information about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot and killed in 2012.
According to a childhood friend, Roof went on a rant about the shooting of Martin and the 2015 Baltimore protests that were sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, while Gray was in police custody. He also often claimed that "blacks were taking over the world." Roof reportedly told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston, but his claims were not taken seriously.
One of the friends who briefly hid Roof's gun away from him said, "I don't think the church was his primary target because he told us he was going for the school. But I think he couldn't get into the school because of the security, so I think he just settled for the church."
An African-American friend of Roof's said he never witnessed Roof expressing any racial prejudice, but also said that a week before the shooting, Roof had confided in him that he would commit a shooting at the college.
On the day he was captured, June 18, 2015, Roof confessed to committing the Charleston attack with the intention of starting a race war, and reportedly told investigators he almost did not go through with his mission because members of the church study group had been so nice to him.
Before the final phase of jury selection in November, the judge ordered an evaluation of Roof's competency to stand trial after his defense team brought up concerns. The competency evaluation was submitted to the parties in the case, but it has not been released to the public. Records from a hearing about that evaluation have also remained sealed - the judge believed the contents could potentially prejudice the jury - but are scheduled to be made public once the sentencing phase is over.
Melvin Graham, who lost his sister, Cynthia Hurd, said outside of the courthouse he believes the jury's verdict is a "very hollow victory" but that it does "send a message to those who feel the way (Roof) feels that this community will not tolerate it."
Graham said he strives to forgive his sister's killer and hopes, one day, Dylann Roof will repent for his actions.
"He's in God's hands now," Graham said. "If he turns his life around, if he makes a humble confession to God, when he gets there he can join my sister and the other eight in heaven."