Dylann Roof sentenced to death for Charleston church massacre

Charleston, S.C. (NBC News) — An admitted white supremacist was sentenced to death Tuesday for massacring nine black worshipers who’d invited him to study the Bible with them at a Charleston, S.C., church, ending a two-phase federal trial that exposed the killer’s hate-fueled motives and plumbed the chasms of grief left by the victims’ deaths.

The jury, the same that convicted Dylann Roof in the murders last month, announced its verdict after deliberating less than three hours.

Roof, 22, who represented himself in the penalty phase, did very little to persuade the panel to spare his life. He declined to present any witnesses or evidence, blocked standby defense lawyers’ attempts to raise questions about his mental health, and suggested in his closing statement that arguing for life in prison wasn’t worth the effort.

As the verdicts were announced, Roof stared straight ahead, or looked down. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel scheduled formal sentencing for Wednesday morning. Roof then asked for a lawyer to help file a motion for a new trial, which Gergel said he’d consider before the sentencing, but added that the request didn’t seem justified.

Roof now becomes the 63rd person on federal death row, and the first to be put there since Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted in 2015.

Nevertheless, it will likely be years before he is put to death; the federal government has put executions on hold out of concerns about lethal injection drugs, and appeals could put off the date even further. The last federal execution took place in 2003.

And Roof still faces a second trial, by the state of South Carolina, where he also faces the death penalty. The date of that trial has not been determined.

From the start of the trial, Roof’s guilt was hardly in doubt.

It took the 12-person jury a little over two hours to convict Roof last month on all 33 counts, including two dozen that fall under federal hate crime statutes.

During that phase of the trial, defense lawyer David Bruck put no witnesses on the stand and raised no objections when prosecutors played Roof’s videotaped confession to the FBI, which was made following his arrest. In it, Roof admitted he was guilty and that the motive was to spark a race war. He told the FBI men he was surprised he was able to kill as many people as he did with his .45-caliber Glock pistol.

Witnesses included two women who survived the shooting, Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, who testified that Roof told her, “I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”

For the penalty phase, a judge allowed Roof to represent himself, but only after conducting a competency hearing that remains under seal. Roof told the jury that “there is nothing wrong with me psychologically,” and that he chose to mount his own defense to prevent lawyers from presenting mental health evaluations.

Prosecutors focused on the lives of the victims — the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; the Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; and Tywanza Sanders, 26. The government used photos, video, audio recordings and testimony from loved ones to explore the killings’ aftermath.

Also key to the government’s case was was showing Roof’s planning for the June 17, 2015 massacre, in which Roof targeted a group of worshipers who’d invited him to study the Bible with them on a Wednesday night, waiting nearly an hour before opening fire.

The government has also stressed Roof’s apparent lack of remorse afterward, a contrast with the expressions of forgiveness from some victims’ relatives at Roof’s first court appearance after the attack.

At trial, prosecutors shared with the jury portions of Roof’s jailhouse journal, dated six weeks after the killings.

“I do not regret what I did,” Roof wrote. “I am not sorry.”

After the verdict, U.S. Sen Tim Scott of South Carolina said the jury had made the right decision, and that it would mark “a pivotal moment” in the victims’ families’ “road toward some sort of closure.”

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