CHARLESTON, S.C. — One by one, survivors and family members of those killed by Dylann Roof stood before him Wednesday morning and told him about the devastating impact he had on their lives when he opened fire during a June 2015 Bible study meeting at a historic black Charleston church and killed nine people.
Roof, 22, listened impassively, staring at the table in front of him as they spoke. At the end of the sentencing hearing, the self-proclaimed white supremacist will become the first person in the United States to be sentenced to death in connection with a federal hate crime.
He was convicted last month of 33 separate charges stemming from the June 17, 2015, mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.
The Post and Courier in Charleston reported that survivor Felicia Sanders, one of just three people in the Bible study meeting who was not shot and killed, was the first person to deliver a victim impact statement. Sanders spoke to Roof as she held the bloodstained Bible that she had with her on the night she saw him kill those around her, including her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders, and Susie Jackson, her 87-year-old aunt.
“I brought my Bible to the courtroom shot up,” Sanders told him, according to the newspaper. “It reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you, Dylann Roof.”
She told Roof that she forgave him for his actions, but that it’s impossible to help a person who refuses to help himself.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” Sanders said.
Tywanza Sanders’ aunt, Jamie Scott, told Roof that her nephew wished to be an organ donor when he died, but the shooting caused too much damage to his organs. Sanders had at least four bullets in his body at the time of his autopsy.
“Not only did you destroy the love Tywanza had. You have taken away from someone who could have had his eyes, his kidney and that great big heart,” Scott told Roof.
A granddaughter of retired Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., who was also killed in the massacre, told Roof that the hate-filled message he attempted to send with his actions was not received, the Post and Courier reported. She pointed out that the victims’ families and the public had chosen a different path.
“Your choices brought us here, but our choice to respond with love has kept us here,” Alana Simmons said. “We are all moving on in love and moving on in strength, and nothing you can ever do will be able to stop that.”
Many of the victims’ relatives expressed forgiveness despite the pain that they’ve suffered since the shooting, the Post and Courier reported. Dan Simmons Jr., who lost his father, urged Roof to find faith in God.
Family members of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor were angry, with a niece of the beloved minister berating him for his demeanor during the trial.
“How dare you sit here every day, looking dumb-faced and acting like you did nothing wrong?” Ashland Temoney shouted. “You are the biggest coward I have ever seen in my life. You can’t even look us in the face.”
Temoney told Roof that his effort to start a race war failed, the Post and Courier reported, and that the massacre brought people together to talk about the difficult topic of race instead.
Middleton-Doctor’s daughter, Gracyn Doctor, told Roof she hoped his guilt “eats (him) alive,” the newspaper said.
“Hopefully, you will go straight to hell, where you will spend an eternity,” Doctor said.
Bethane Middleton-Brown, Middleton-Doctor’s sister, told Roof that he had not taken anything from her sister or their family because God protects his followers’ souls and her spirit will continue.
“You can’t have my joy. It is simply not yours to take,” Middleton-Brown said.
Roof’s sentencing comes after nearly a week of testimony from victims’ family and friends, who offered a glimpse into their lives to jurors debating Roof’s fate. Roof, who represented himself during the penalty phase of the case, offered little in the way of a defense, but claimed that he does not harbor hatred for black people and that federal prosecutors have “no idea what real hate is.”
He also said that he still believes that he did what he had to do when he opened fire in Emanuel’s fellowship hall. Jurors previously saw Roof’s writings in a jailhouse journal, in which he wrote that he was not sorry for the murders and had sympathy only for himself and for white people who had to live alongside black people and those “killed daily at the hands of the lower race.”
Testimony during his trial indicated that the people whom he killed had welcomed him into their Bible study the night of the shooting, with Emanuel minister the Rev. Clementa Pinckney offering him the seat next to him. Roof sat through about 45 minutes of their discussion and, as Pinckney and his church members closed their eyes for the final prayer of the meeting, pulled out a Glock pistol and began shooting.
Pinckney and eight of the 11 church members in attendance were killed. Besides Sanders, Jackson, Simmons and Middleton-Doctor, the victims included the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance and Myra Thompson.
Felicia Sanders survived by hiding under a table, rubbing blood from her son and aunt on her legs and playing dead. She saved her 11-year-old granddaughter by clutching the girl so tightly to her chest that she was afraid she’d smother the child, she testified.
The third survivor, Polly Sheppard, was also uninjured. Sheppard, 71, testified last month that Roof told her he would let her live so she could tell the story of what he’d done.