Describing himself as “very well-versed in racism,” Dylann Roof tried to move beyond his loner leanings and meet up with other white supremacists in the months before he killed nine black parishioners in a quest to start a race war, according to testimony Friday.
Revelations about Roof’s racist screeds and his efforts to reach fellow followers of online hate contrasted starkly in a Charleston courtroom with wrenching, tear-filled testimony from those who lost loved ones in the Emanuel AME Church massacre.
The testimony came on the third day of sentencing proceedings as prosecutors worked to convince a 12-member jury that Roof should be put to death for his crimes. The government is expected to wrap up its case Monday, setting the stage for the jury to begin deliberations as early as the following day.
Roof, acting as his own attorney, has said he doesn’t plan to call witnesses or offer evidence on his behalf. He asked no questions of witnesses Friday and spent much of the day staring at the defense table, a flat expression fixed on his face.
About four months before the mass shooting, Roof joined the white supremacist website Stormfront.org and reached out to other Columbia-area separatists looking to meet up, FBI Special Agent Joseph Hamski told the jury.
Hamski, lead investigator on the Emanuel shooting, testified that a computer in the 22-year-old’s Eastover home was used to post statements and send private messages under a handle called “LilAryan.” That account was registered to Roof's email address.
Roof, who had hand-drawn racist symbols on the shoes he wore to court Monday, initially posted on the Stormfront website in February 2015. That same month he made two trips to Charleston to scout Emanuel.
On the website, he praised "Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War," a 1993 HBO documentary about white supremacists in Alabama, Hamski said. He then sent private messages to Stormfront members in the Columbia area seeking to get together. He offered his age, race and email address.
It was not immediately clear from Hamski's testimony whether any of those proposed meet-ups took place.
Roof also bragged on StormFront he had seen every documentary and film related to skinheads. He defended one of the men featured in the Skinheads film, saying the man was working with kids from broken homes and "showing them the light." He called the film "real and down to earth."
He offered his credentials for making these observations: "I consider myself very well-versed in racism."
Family book nerd
The remainder of Friday’s testimony was strikingly different from Roof’s legacy of hate. Family and friends of three of the nine slain church members – Cynthia Graham Hurd, Ethel Lance and Susie Jackson – took to the witness stand to paint moving portraits of kind and caring people who built lives centered around love, family and faith.
Hurd’s family spoke of her life-long love affair with books and reading, a passion that drove her to become a Charleston County librarian for 31 years. The first in her family to earn a four-year college degree, she worked long hours holding down two library jobs just so she could be around that environment as much as she could. There she also gained lifelong friends and became manager of the West Ashley branch that now bears her name.
Her brother, former North Carolina Sen. Malcolm Graham, said he teased his big sister for being a studious nerd, although she was his “protector and counselor" who pushed him to learn and lead. To her sister, Averil "Jackie" Jones, Hurd was a lifelong rock of support who rallied the family to help after Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before the shooting.
Hurd had planned to accompany her sister to a doctor’s appointment in late June, but died before that arrived. Jones told the jury she’ll never fill that void.
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about my sister," Jones told the jury. "I can't pick up the phone and call her. I can't hear her laughter. I can't get her wisdom. I can't share my secrets. I feel empty. When she died a part of me went with her. There's a huge hole in my heart."
'That stable foundation'
Loved-ones described how Ethel Lance, the 70-year-old family matriarch who served as Emanuel’s sexton, held their family together with her deep love of family and church. She made sure her five children and extended family gathered for holidays and special occasions.
Since her death that hasn’t happened. Silence has filled the void of grief among them.
The oldest of Lance's children, the Rev. Sharon Risher, held up her hands in the witness stand and pretended to rip apart a piece of fabric representing her family.
"Nobody is there to keep us together, to keep the pieces together. Now we have tattered pieces," Risher said tearfully. "And I know that would devastate her."
Lance's granddaughter, Najee Washington, lived with her grandmother growing up and after her mother died of cancer two years before the shooting. She called Lance the family glue and wiped away tears telling the jury how she shared breakfast with her "Granny" on June 17, 2015.
They parted with a shared, “I love you.” Hours later, she was summoned to Emanuel and learned her grandmother was shot to death. She collapsed.
Later she returned to their home, now a silent and dark place.
"It was like the switch of a light. It was like everything felt cold,” she said. “I couldn't sleep that night at all. It felt like a dream."
Inspiring a nation
At age 87, Susie Jackson was the oldest of the nine victims. Her son Walter Jackson and her oldest grandson described her as a warm and loving matriarch who watched over the large, extended family rooted in Emanuel AME Church. She traveled far to make sure people stayed close. One time she even rented a bus to get the family to a wedding.
Her son recalled the last time he saw his mother, when she visited him in Cleveland in 2014. She arrived with a stack of birthday cards for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren who lived there, and told her son to make sure all of them got their cards on their birthdays in case something happened to her.
Her grandson, Walter “Bernie” Jackson Jr., said he visited Charleston often as a kid to see his grandmother. She was always taking the family to Emanuel for church functions, Bible study and Sunday school.
“She showed us the ropes as far as putting God first,” he said.
When she turned 70, her grandson wrote her a poem he titled “To Inspire A Nation,” telling of the selfless spirit she embodied all her life.
“As someone who’s gone through racism and segregation, she went through life with love for everyone," he said. "She radiated unconditional love."