Dylann Roof will now have to defend himself from a potential death penalty after a jury found him guilty of all 33 federal charges for an attack on Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church last year.
The federal jury deliberated for less than two hours before reaching the verdict Thursday afternoon. Jurors had spent the past week listening to survivors of the attack that killed nine black parishioners during a June 2015 Bible study. They also saw crime scene images, first responders testimony and watched a nearly two-hour video of the FBI interrogation where Roof confessed his actions and explained he acted because he felt action was needed to either start a race war or renew segregation.
“I wasn’t expecting anything less,” survivor Felicia Sanders told reporters after the verdict. “I knew it was going to be guilty, guilty, guilty completely.”
Roof’s attorneys did not challenge his guilt, but sought to gain sympathy for the 22-year-old that they hope will help him later avoid capital punishment. The sentencing phase of Roof’s trial will begin January 3.
Prosecutors tried to paint Roof as a coldhearted, racist murderer and used Roof’s own notes to show he targeted Emanuel AME Church and other churches specifically because of their significance in the African-American community. “He executed them because he believed they are nothing more than animals,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams said in his closing arguments.
Williams noted Roof shot his victims a number of times, including ten shots at 87-year-old Suzie Jackson. He called Roof “a man of tremendous cowardice as he shot them with their eyes closed,” during a prayer at the Bible study.
Roof’s attorney David Bruck never disputed his client’s actions, but portrayed Roof as a loner who was radicalized into action by racist material he read online for years. Bruck noted Roof frequently took photos of himself alone and rarely spoke to others, including his own family.
But Williams noted Roof had clearly planned the attack, noting he made four different trips to the church before his actions June 17, 2015. Williams made his arguments while displaying Powerpoint images to show Roof’s written words to back up prosecutors’ contention that the man was not mentally ill and understood exactly what he was doing. “That hatred is real. It may seem unbelievable to you,” Williams said.
At one point, the jury requested an opportunity to re-watch Roof’s FBI confession video. Specifically, jurors wanted to again the moment Roof told investigators he thought he had killed four or five people and his apparent surprise at realizing nine people were killed in the attack. It was not clear exactly why the jury wished to see that moment.
The Justice Department had indicted Roof for 33 charges, including 12 hate crimes (one for each of his 9 dead victims and 3 survivors), 12 counts for obstruction of religion and 9 for use of a firearm to kill.
Thursday’s verdict was greeted with relief by families and even state lawmakers, although it was expected given Roof’s lack of defense effort. “It is my hope that the survivors, the families, and the people of South Carolina can find some peace in the fact that justice has been served,” Haley said in a statement released shortly after the last verdict was read.