Clutching the blood-stained Bible she had with her when Dylann Roof executed nine family and friends around her, Felicia Sanders told the self-avowed white supremacist in court Wednesday that she still forgives him for his actions. They have scarred her life but haven't shaken her faith.
Addressing Roof the day after a jury sentenced him to death, Sanders said the mass shooting that killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015 has left her unable to hear a balloon pop or an acorn fall without being startled. She can no longer shut her eyes when she prays.
But she will carry on, she told him, and continue to follow the words of God still clear in the battered Bible she cherishes.
"I brought my Bible to the courtroom ... shot up," she said. "It reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you, Dylann Roof."
Sanders, who lost her son Tywanza and her aunt Susie Jackson in the shooting, told Roof that when she looks at him she sees "someone who is cold, who is lost, who the devil has come back to reclaim."
From a lectern about 20 feet away, she stared hard at the man who killed nine people in the church where six generations of her family have worshipped and dared him to look at her. Instead, he stared straight ahead, still and expressionless.
"Yes, I forgive you," Sanders said. "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."
She was the first in a parade of victims' loved ones to address the court and Roof in the hours before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel formally imposed the death sentence. It was the families' first chance to address the killer and describe to him in very personal terms the havoc and grief his actions brought to their lives.
They crammed into every seat in the courtroom. At times, they murmured and chuckled as people spoke; at others, they wiped away tears. Many had grown up together, their loved ones part of Emanuel's tight and extended family, now all thrust together to form a new kind of bond as they repair lives shattered by the massacre.
More than 30 witnesses signed up to address the court. Whether shouting or whispering in trembling tones, they spoke with passion and conviction while Roof refused to look them in the eyes.
Some offered their love and forgiveness; others pleas that he burn in hell for eternity. Some implored Roof to shed his hate and seek forgiveness through faith. Others worked to drive home the message that he had failed in his mission to sow division through his twisted and bloody plan.
"Instead of starting a race war, you started a love war," said Melvin Graham, who lost his sister Cynthia Graham Hurd in the shooting.
Speakers described Roof as a sub-human miscreant, the devil incarnate, and the very embodiment of evil. Some also called him a coward for his refusal to meet their gaze. Over and over, they demanded that he look up and witness their words.
"Dylann! Dylann! I know that you can hear me," Jamie Scott, Tywanza Sanders' aunt, shouted in a booming voice. "I wish you would look at me, boy, but I know that you can hear me."
Roof, 22, didn't respond. He fixed a flat stare on the table in front of him, as he did throughout his hate crimes trial. His face offered nothing to those who extended to him words of anger and grace.
So they trudged on, a packed courtroom of people with something to say about pain, loss and the power of faith to overcome even the darkest of life's tragedies.
"You can't have my joy," said Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister died in the shooting. "It is simply not yours to take."
Mercy and condemnation
Some of these same people drew the nation's attention in June 2015 when they stood at Roof's bail hearing to offer their mercy after his arrest — their grief still fresh and raw. They stood again Wednesday to repeat that message, whether Roof wanted to hear it or not.
Dan Simmons Jr., speaking in a low, hissing whisper, said his faith requires him to pray for Roof and he has done so. He encouraged Roof to find that same spirit, that same river of faith, within himself, and drive out the evil spirit dwelling within.
“I forgive you for you actions. You are just a body being used. You didn’t understand the presence of the evil that possesses you," he said. "But thank God that he gives us the opportunity for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the heartbeat that pulls us to another level.”
Myra Thompson's sister, Marlene Coakley-Jenkins, offered Roof similar counsel, telling him to take "ownership of who you can be" and release the hate.
"God has a place for all of us," she said.
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., reminded Roof of her message at his bail hearing that "hate won't win." She told him those words held true. Though he hoped to drive people apart, he instead brought people closer together, she said.
Others agreed, telling Roof that he forged a bond among the families that will never be broken, a bond of unity that radiated throughout the community and the nation beyond. They told him that people, white and black, are now coming together to have tough, but meaningful, conversations about race and other difficult topics. His actions, they said, only assured that the nine who died will live on as enduring symbols of unity, faith and strength.
"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 ever be able to stop that."
Middleton-Brown, who lost her sister, went on to taunt the self-avowed white supremacist, declaring boldly: "I am a black woman, and I am proud!"
Plenty of those on hand had harsher words for Roof. They chided him for his detached manner and occasional smirks, his twisted vision of the world and his inability to express even an ounce of remorse for what he had done. They told him he deserved every bit of the sentence he received and then some.
"How dare you sit here every day looking dumb-faced, and acting like you did nothing wrong," shouted Ashland Temoney, whose aunt, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, was slain. "You are the biggest coward I have ever seen in my life."
Middleton Doctor's daughter, Gracyn, called Roof "Satan himself" and told him that as he awaits his death, "I hope your conscience and your guilt eats you alive."
"Hopefully you will go straight to hell ... where you will spend an eternity," she said.
Tywanza's father, Tyrone Sanders, also had blunt words for the killer: "I wish they would enact another law to cut a limb every time you try to appeal."
After more than four hours of emotional statements from the families, Roof had a chance to speak but opted to say nothing. He stood before for the judge and listened, his face a blank mask, as Gergel carried out the jury's wishes and sentenced him to death.
The path ahead
The thin young man with the bowl haircut is set to become the first person in the United States to receive the ultimate punishment in a federal trial involving hate crimes. The hates crimes statute itself doesn't carry a death penalty sentencing option. However, other charges Roof was convicted of do.
The federal government has sought execution in trials involving hate crimes seven times before. Five resulted in guilty pleas; two received life sentences, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project's database.
Roof, who chose to represent himself in the trial's penalty phase, remained unrepentant until the end, telling the jury in his closing argument, "I still feel like I had to do it." He didn't present a defense or appeal to the jury to spare his life, saying, "I’m not sure what good that will do anyway.”
Gergel said Roof's collective actions sealed his fate.
"His hate, his viciousness his moral depravity will not go unanswered," Gergel said. "This proceeding will not give the families what they truly want, which is to bring their family members back. But it will give a measure of justice."
The 12-member panel — three black jurors, nine white — deliberated for a little less than three hours before unanimously deciding that Roof should die rather than spend his life in prison. In addition to Sanders, Simmons, Middleton Doctor, Hurd, Jackson and Thompson, those killed in the attack included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Ethel Lance, 70; and Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45.
The case will likely now be appealed, and Roof has 30 days to file the paperwork to set that process in motion.
After his sentence was imposed, Roof asked Gergel to appoint him new lawyers to work on his federal appeal. Roof had been at odds with his legal team of noted capital defense attorneys for much of the trial and opted to sideline them for the penalty phase. "I just don't trust them," he told the judge.
Gergel denied the request, telling Roof he is better off with the skilled team he has in place.
Though convicted defendants are normally shipped off to federal prison, Roof is expected to remain at the Charleston County jail for the present time because he also has a murder trial pending in state court. Never in modern times have both state and federal prosecutors sought someone’s execution simultaneously. The state trial, however, has been postponed indefinitely, and it remained unclear Wednesday how 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson plans to proceed.