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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
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Dylann Roof Is Sentenced to Death in Charleston Church Massacre

Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann S. Roof, the impenitent and inscrutable white supremacist who killed nine African-American churchgoers in a brazenly racial assault almost 19 months ago, shocking the world over the persistence of extremist hatred in dark corners of the American South, was condemned to death by a federal jury on Tuesday.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks, who last month found Mr. Roof guilty of 33 counts for the attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., returned their unanimous verdict after about three hours of deliberations in the penalty phase of a heart-rending and often legally confounding trial.

The guilt of Mr. Roof, who coolly confessed to the killings and then justified them without remorse in a jailhouse manifesto, was never in serious doubt during the first phase of the proceedings in Federal District Court in December. By the time the jurors began their deliberations on his sentence, it seemed inevitable that they would lean toward death, not only because of the heinous nature of the crimes but because Mr. Roof, 22, insisted on denying any psychological incapacity, called no witnesses, presented no evidence in his defense and mostly sidelined his court-appointed lawyers.

Mr. Roof, who showed no emotion as the verdict was read, will be formally sentenced on Wednesday. The decision effectively capped Mr. Roof’s first trial for the killings on June 17, 2015, the Wednesday when, after six scouting visits to Charleston, he showed up in Emanuel’s fellowship hall and was offered a seat for Bible study by the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. Mr. Roof sat quietly, his head hung low, for about 45 minutes while the group considered the meaning of the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Parable of the Sower.

Then, with the parishioners’ eyes clenched for a benediction, Mr. Roof brandished the .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun he had smuggled into the church in a waist pouch. First taking aim at Mr. Pinckney, who was a state senator and the youngest African-American ever elected to South Carolina’s Legislature, he began to fire seven magazines of hollow-point rounds.

The reverberation of gunfire and clinking of skittering shell casings subsided only after more than 70 shots. Each victim was hit repeatedly, with the eldest, Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old grandmother and church matriarch, struck at least 10 times.

During the brief siege, the youngest victim, Tywanza Sanders, 26, pleaded with Mr. Roof not to kill. “You blacks are killing white people on the streets everyday and raping white women everyday,” Mr. Roof said during the rampage, according to a jailhouse manifesto he wrote after his arrest.

Before leaving shortly after 9 p.m., Mr. Roof told one of three survivors, Polly Sheppard, that he was sparing her so she could “tell the story.” He stepped over one minister’s bleeding body on his way out the side door, Glock pistol at his side. The killer expected to find officers waiting for him, and had saved ammunition to take his own life, Mr. Roof said in his confession to two F.B.I. agents.

But the police, alerted by 911 calls from Ms. Sheppard and Mr. Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer, who was hiding with their 6-year-old daughter under a desk in the pastor’s study, had not yet arrived. Mr. Roof got into his black Hyundai Elantra and drove north through the night on country roads.

Officers in Shelby, N.C., detained Mr. Roof the next morning after a florist on her way to work spotted his car, which had been depicted in nationally broadcast alerts based on images from the church’s security cameras. Mr. Roof offered no resistance, admitted that he had been involved in the shootings and directed the officers to the murder weapon under a pillow on the back seat.

In addition to Ms. Jackson, Mr. Pinckney and Mr. Sanders, six other people were killed: Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.

They were familiar, frequent presences at the church known as Mother Emanuel, the oldest A.M.E. congregation in the Deep South and one with a storied history of resistance to slavery and civil rights advocacy over nearly 200 years. In 10 days of testimony, their names and photographs appeared again and again. Family members filled the reserved seats on the right side of the courtroom each day, and 23 relatives and friends delivered emotional testimonials to their character and the impact of their loss.

Ms. Hurd, a librarian, had adopted a simple motto for her life: “Be kinder than necessary.” Ms. Lance was a perfume aficionado with a gentle smile that unified her family. Ms. Middleton Doctor’s first sermon had been titled “The Virtuous Woman.” Mr. Simmons, a veteran of the Vietnam War, had been among the first blacks in South Carolina hired to drive a Greyhound bus. Ms. Coleman-Singleton was a beaming mother whose ebullient preaching made her a popular figure in Charleston’s churches. Ms. Thompson was a workhorse of Emanuel who had chaired its trustee board. Mr. Sanders, whose parents found hundreds of poems in his bedroom, aspired to become an entertainment lawyer.

“That night, they were getting basic instructions before leaving earth,” Felicia Sanders, Mr. Sanders’s mother and a survivor of the attack, testified.

The jury found Mr. Roof guilty in December of hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence. Eighteen of the 33 counts carried a potential death sentence.

Although Mr. Roof declined to testify or present any evidence, his trial was unusual for the jury’s ability to hear from an accused mass murderer in his own unapologetic words. They watched video of his two-hour confession to the F.B.I., and heard readings of his online manifesto, a journal found in his car, suicide letters to his parents, and a jailhouse essay written within seven weeks after his arrest.

The trial became a duel of competing narratives on the slightly-built, ninth-grade dropout from the Columbia area. In the prosecution’s depiction, Mr. Roof was the personification of evil, a racist ideologue, radicalized on the internet, who plotted an intensely premeditated assault over more than six months, waiting only until he was 21 and old enough to buy a weapon.

He downloaded a history of the Ku Klux Klan 10 months before the attack, used the online handle LilAryan to communicate with like-minded white nationalists, created the website www.lastrhodesian.com to post a deliberative screed against blacks, Hispanics and Jews, and audaciously adorned his canvas prison shoes with supremacist symbols, even wearing them to court. He proudly embraced his mission to incite a race war, and admired himself in his writings for having the courage to carry out actions that less-committed racists only prophesied.

“Sometimes sitting in my cell,” Mr. Roof wrote while in jail, “I think about how nice it would be to watch a movie or eat some good food or drive my car somewhere, but then I remember how I felt when I did these things, and how I knew I had to do something. And then I realize it was worth it.”

But in the portrayal suggested by defense lawyers, Mr. Roof was a deeply disturbed delusionist who most demonstrated his incapacity by denying it. Indeed, Mr. Roof insisted on representing himself during the sentencing phase for the purpose of preventing his experienced capital defender, David I. Bruck, from introducing potentially mitigating evidence about his family, educational background or mental health. Mr. Roof sat impassively at the defense table, almost every minute of every day, showing no interest or expression even when his own words were read aloud.

The results of at least two psychiatric evaluations have been kept under seal by Judge Richard M. Gergel, who ruled Mr. Roof competent to stand trial and to represent himself. Jurors heard little of Mr. Roof’s family, which arrived in Lexington County from Germany in the first half of the 18th century and included Lutheran ministers, Confederate soldiers, slaveholders and two county sheriffs, according to a family genealogy.

His paternal grandfather is a well-regarded lawyer and his father a construction contractor. Mr. Roof was born in 1994 to parents who had already divorced but had briefly reconciled. Mr. Roof began his online treatise by absolving them of any responsibility for his beliefs: “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.” Experts on white supremacists said Mr. Roof was younger than most who resort to violence, and stands apart for his lack of contact with organized groups.

Carol S. Steiker, a Harvard law professor who has written extensively about the death penalty, said that the two narratives about Mr. Roof were not necessarily inconsistent, and that a concealed psychological defect could have left Mr. Roof susceptible to a disconnected worldview. “It’s pretty hard to tell the difference between bad and mad, between evil and crazy,” she said, “and that’s why we need the investigation needed to present a mitigating case.”

Mr. Roof’s rampage staggered this area, which was already reeling from the April 2015 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Walter L. Scott, by Michael T. Slager, a white police officer in North Charleston.

But two days after the church shootings, with Mr. Roof standing expressionless in the Charleston County jail, five relatives of the victims publicly offered him forgiveness during an extraordinary bond hearing. The following week, President Obama argued in a soaring eulogy for Mr. Pinckney, which culminated in an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” that the attack’s lessons offered a way forward for race relations.

Later, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia, where it had flown for more than a half-century and enjoyed decades of political protection.

The Justice Department announced last May that its prosecutors would seek the death penalty for Mr. Roof, in part because of what officials described as his “substantial planning and premeditation” and his “hatred and contempt” toward black people. Although federal capital prosecutions are complex and expensive, the government rejected Mr. Roof’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

Federal law classifies the jury’s decision as a binding “recommendation,” and Mr. Roof will be sentenced formally at a later hearing, when survivors of the attack and relatives of the victims may testify without constraints in the trial intended to preserve his due process rights.

Yet the verdict confers no certainty about whether Mr. Roof will ever be put to death at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His case could spur years of appeals — the courts could well consider his mental competency and even the tearful tenor of the sentencing phase — and the scarcity of lethal injection drugs could hinder his execution.

The federal government has not killed one of its prisoners since 2003. Mr. Roof also faces a separate capital prosecution for murder in South Carolina, where no inmate has been put to death in more than five years. The state trial, initially set for Jan. 17, has been indefinitely postponed.

That it at times seemed more important to Mr. Roof to not be depicted as mentally ill than to avoid execution prompted some in the courtroom to question whether he simply preferred to die than to serve a long life in prison. His writings and confession offered evidence on both sides of that question, wavering between glimmers of hope — even that he might someday be pardoned — and an attraction to the prospects of martyrdom. But his commitment to his cause — the restoration of white power through violent subjugation — never publicly flagged.

“I have shed a tear of self pity for myself,” he wrote in 2015. “I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place. I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that should never have existed.”

Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, Kevin Sack, January 10, 2017

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