The Dylann Roof Trial: First-Hand Reflections and Assessment

Dave Gillespie —


unnamedThe verdict came in around mid-afternoon Thursday, December 15, just a couple of hours after the lawyers completed their closing statements and the judge gave his charge to the jury. U.S. v. Dylann Storm Roof: Guilty on all charges. Given the complexity of the indictment—33 counts, many of them alleging hate crimes—the brief time it took was remarkable. But the verdict itself was anything but surprising.

I have been in court every one of the trial’s seven days so far. It is humbling to sit near the six rows, always faithfully filled, that are reserved for the victims’ dear families, friends and survivors of Roof’s murderous June 17, 2015, rampage. It’s interesting to chat with other spectators who come and go and with media people gathered from around the country. It’s surreal to see the perpetrator sitting ahead of us, very close by.

Unbridled emotions, mainly anger and grief, surfaced over the days that the narrative unfolded. The government opened with the heartrending testimony of Felicia Sanders. She was one of two adult survivors of the attack. We listened in horror as she testified. We realized the depth of her grief as she spoke of how her son and aunt were killed by Roof.

There was Roof’s racist manifesto, along with hundreds of visual images, including:

  • Selfies of Roof with racist flags and symbols and that Glock .45 caliber murder weapon;
  • Grisly 360-degree movable scans revealing dead bodies and blood and spent magazines and shell casings;
  • Surveillance footage of Roof leaving Emanuel AME Church after punishing its innocents for being black, sentencing them to death for the “sin” of taking too seriously the words of Jesus that “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

And there was that confession video, two hours long, that was taken by two FBI agents in Shelby, N.C., where local police apprehended Roof.

I did it, he said. How many did you kill? they asked. I don’t know. Maybe five. Why did you do it? I had to, he said—blacks are raping our women, taking over the country. There used to be KKK and skinheads. No one is doing anything for whites these days.

unnamedWho is your best friend? they asked. I don’t have one, he said. You killed innocent people worshiping in their church. Yes, but if I went into a black neighborhood and killed a drug dealer it wouldn’t have the same impact. Why Charleston and Emanuel AME? I could have chosen a black church in Columbia. But Charleston is historic. I like to come to Charleston. Emanuel AME is a historic black church and so I chose it. (Note: Conversation partly paraphrased.)

It was on Wednesday, the day before the verdict came in, that I felt most affected by the grim testimony, by the course of events. There were just two witnesses that day. One was Dr. Erin D. Presnell, the forensic pathologist at Medical University of South Carolina who over a four-day period in June 2015 autopsied the bodies of the nine Mother Emanuel victims. Using individual diagrams and X-rays, she described the trauma to each body. How many bullets (“projectiles”) entered each human being? The range was 5 to 10. The oldest, an 87-year-old woman named Susie Jackson, was hit 10 times by the issue from Roof’s Glock .45. The cause of death in each case? The multiple traumas but in particular bullets reaching hearts, aortas, lungs and kidneys, she said. Beneath the clinical empiricism of the testimony, I sensed the sadness and anger of Dr. Presnell as she autopsied and now testified about what she had found.

And then from penultimate to ultimate, there came the testimony of Polly Sheppard, the woman Roof found hiding under a table and praying. “Shut up!” he said before telling her he would let her live so that she could tell the story of what happened in that room. That was the story she told in court Wednesday. If there were spectators in the courtroom who held back tears, it had to have been out of a prodigious resolve.

Sheppard spoke individually of each of her nine friends killed on June 17. She described the horror that night: of Daniel Simmons, gunned down as he tried to reach and help his already-fallen pastor, Clementa Pinckney; of the youngest victim, Tywanza Sanders, shot and killed vainly trying to assist the eldest, his great aunt. In grief and desperation that night, Sheppard reached for the phone of a dead friend and called 911. Her testimony ended with a recording, played in court, of the chilling dialogue between her and the 911 operator. “He’s a white dude. He’s in here. He’s reloading.” “Hang on, Ms. Polly. You’re doing great. I’m sending help.”

Spectators rose and stood in unison as Polly Sheppard left the witness stand. That gesture of respect was extraordinary, maybe unique, in judicial proceedings. The defendant, who sat looking detached throughout the trial, did not turn toward Sheppard as she gave her testimony. He kept his seat as she exited the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is an able, effective, no-nonsense judge. Led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, the prosecution produced a powerful, compelling narrative. David Bruck, one of the nation’s most eminent defense lawyers in capital cases, did all he could for Roof. But he rested his case without calling Roof or any other defense witness. Bruck has been stymied by objections to the relevance of his presentation of his client as a friendless delusional suicidal loner and also by Roof’s resolve to defend himself in the coming second part to the trial.

After a hiatus for the holidays, the trial will resume for the sentencing phase on or around January 3, 2017. The 12 jurors (by my count, 10 women, 2 men; 9 whites, 3 African Americans) who found him guilty will, following additional testimony, decide whether to sentence Roof to die or spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of release.

Long before the trial began, Roof’s attorneys had offered a guilty plea if the government would remove death from the penalty options. What came out in court has sickened me. But whatever I or anyone else may think about capital punishment, I am convinced that this trial was necessary. Because of it, the horrific event of June 17, 2015, its perpetrator and its victims, and the unanimous verdict of a mixed Southern jury have been documented for history. That in itself is a step toward justice. And I do hope this trial brought some sense of closure to the victims and their families–whatever the outcome of the sentencing phase that’s ahead.


An earlier version of this article was published in Statehouse Report and Charleston Currents.

About Dave Gillespie (6 Articles)
Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, Presbyterian College. South Carolina Professor of the Year, 1993. Fulbright Professor, Estonia, 1997. Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Presbyterian College, 1997-2005. Taught occasionally at College of Charleston and The Citadel, 2006-2015. Author of two books on U.S. third parties and a book on the racially-motivated mass shooting at a black Charleston church.

2 Comments on The Dylann Roof Trial: First-Hand Reflections and Assessment

  1. Dylan Roof did not take a path or arrive at his destination of evil-in-action in a vacuum. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups & other extremist groups in America, over the past eight years has documented a dramatic surge in openly expressed violent hatred. Currently the SPLC cites the presence of 892 organized & active hate groups in the US. Well over 60% of these incorporate racist views, particularly against African Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Gillespie // January 5, 2017 at 5:20 am // Reply

    Thanks, revbob. And I certainly agree that that incredible array of extremist groups, most of them white supremacist, provides an important context for the story of Dylann Roof. I don’t think the evidence so far shows that his actions are primarily the result of groupthink emanating from one (or more) of those groups. It seems more likely that the now-fired (by Roof) defense bench is right: Roof is delusional, probably suicidal (maybe by capital punishment), and (though he does have or has had a few friends) essentially a loner.

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