A deep stillness settled over the federal courtroom as graphic photos were shown of the nine people murdered last year at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
The defendant, 22-year-old Dylann Roof, sat motionless throughout, as he has since his death penalty trial began Wednesday. Behind him sat his paternal grandparents, media and members of the general public. Although Roof has pleaded not guilty, his attorney David Bruck, a renowned anti-death penalty advocate, told jurors that he didn’t expect them to find his client not guilty. At stake is whether Roof deserves to die or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Roof, who posed in online pictures with the Confederate battle flag, allegedly told his victims he had to kill them because blacks were taking over and were “raping our women.”
In a serendipitous display of unwanted irony, the South’s racial divisions that Charleston, especially, has worked so hard to bridge were refashioned by happenstance and logistics in the courtroom itself. Reserved seating placed the victims’ family and friends, primarily black, on one side of the room and the defendant’s family and the mostly white media on the other. This imposed segregation was purely circumstantial but painful, nonetheless.
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Before the photo display, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel repeatedly warned family members that the pictures were graphic, saying there was no shame in sitting out this portion of the trial. The quiet was profound and leaden as each person in the room tried within his or her own space to convey respect for the dead and the bereaved. The pin-drop silence was interrupted only once when a young black man, upon seeing the body of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, bolted from the courtroom.
Most striking of the photographs was that of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who seemed to have been running toward the altar when he was felled by three bullets, according to the autopsy report. He had pitched headfirst toward the raised lectern in a prone position reminiscent of reverential prostration. A wide ribbon of blood streamed away from his head for several feet before disappearing from the frame.
Those who have followed the events of June 17, 2015, and thereafter are familiar with Pinckney and the eight black parishioners who died. Over time, we’ve learned their names and faces, and feel as though they were friends or people we’d like to have known. Seeing their photos in the courtroom, their bodies labeled with a number as the only way to identify them initially, refreshed a sense of the killer’s anonymous presence among them that night and the deft, dispassionate brutality with which he dispatched them.
From the evidence, it was easy to discern how the shooter went about his business. Shell casings and empty magazines were found around the perimeter of the room, indicating that the killer was moving around while shooting. One magazine was left on one of three round tables in the center of the room where the Bible study group was meeting and where most of the victims were found. This particular table was draped with a bright yellow-and-green-patterned cloth. Next to the dark, empty magazine was a large, opened Bible and a piece of paper.
Bullet holes in another of the tablecloths and an indentation in the metal frame underneath suggested that the shooter deliberately aimed under the tables to kill those crouched below. The precision of his execution, at once heartbreaking and unconscionable, would deliver a staggering psychic blow to any decent human being.
For almost an hour, according to previous reports, Roof sat among these welcoming people, pretending to share their spiritual purpose, and then opened fire in a blaze of resigned fury. When a wounded Tywanza Sanders begged him to stop, Roof kept firing until four bullets riddled Sanders’ body. How could he? How could anyone?
By anyone’s definition, Roof is a racist, but surely this is too facile an explanation. The rational mind wants more. Insanity? Not according to a psychiatrist who examined him. What then?
The “what” will be the focus of defense attorneys as they try to persuade jurors to spare Roof’s life. If they do, he still faces another death penalty state trial next year. Whatever is decided here — and again later — it may be difficult to get beyond the way survivor Felicia Sanders described the assailant as the prosecution’s first witness. Looking directly at Roof, she said, “Evil, evil, evil.”