Dylann Roof hesitated for about 20 seconds when an FBI agent asked him what he was doing on the night nine black church members were killed during Bible study.
"Uh, I did it," Mr. Roof said in a video recording played for the public for the first time Friday at his death penalty trial. After waiving his rights and about a minute of small talk, the agents pressed Roof gently – asking him exactly what he did. He paused another 30 seconds or so.
"I killed them," Roof said. As he talked more, he chuckled and said, "Well, I killed them, I guess."
The video was shown on the third day of testimony. Roof is accused of opening fire inside a basement room of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, just as members of the Bible study closed their eyes for a final prayer.
Roof told the agents he didn't start firing as soon as he entered.
"I was sitting there thinking about whether I should do it or not. That's why I sat there for 15 minutes. I could have walked out," Roof said.
Church surveillance videos indicate Roof was inside closer to 45 minutes. A survivor testified that he was given a Bible and a study guide to follow along with the prayer group.
Roof, as he has for much of the trial, hardly looked up as the confession played, mostly just shuffling papers in front of him at the defense table.
FBI agent Michael Stansbury said he pushed Roof to confess so quickly because he sensed he wanted to talk.
"He was calm. He wasn't upset," Mr. Stansbury said.
Roof is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes. His defense has largely conceded that he committed the slayings and has instead focused on trying to spare him the death penalty. On Friday, they asked the judge to allow them to present more evidence about his personality and state of mind, and US District Judge Richard Gergel said he would take up the issue on a case-by-case basis before jurors begin hearing testimony from a witness.
If jurors find Roof guilty, they will decide whether he should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Roof has opted to have his attorneys represent him only during the guilt stage of his trial, but plans to represent himself during that penalty phase, a decision that has led some analysts to wonder whether he might be trying to sabotage his trial in a way that pushes the jury to give him the death penalty.
“When you look at people who choose to ask for death at trial, or people who waive their appeals and agree to be executed … some people say this is really state-assisted suicide, and some people say the person should have the autonomy and the choice to make their own decision,” John Blume, a Cornell Law School professor and director of the Death Penalty Project there, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Monday.
“While some defendants wait until they've been sentenced to resign themselves to the death penalty, others act during the trial to swing the jury in the direction of capital punishment. Many of those who volunteer for execution bear a striking resemblance to the segment of the civilian population most likely to end their own life by suicide: white men with histories of substance abuse and mental illness. Still, substance abuse and neurological disorders are common among inmates on death row, and only a fraction fall into the volunteer category,” the Monitor’s Amanda Hoover wrote.
In Friday's confession, Roof said he left bullets in a magazine so that he could kill himself after the slayings but changed his mind when he didn't see any police immediately after the shooting.
At one point, an agent asked if Roof thought about killing more blacks.
"Oh no. I was worn out," Roof said.
He said he chose Emanuel in part because it is the oldest black church in the South and that the killing of Trayvon Martin was a turning point in his life. Martin, a young unarmed black man, was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting.
He laughs occasionally throughout the questioning. About 45 minutes into it, agents finally tell Roof that he killed nine people.
"There wasn't even that many people in there," Roof said incredulously. "Are you lying to me?"
The only other glimpse into Roof's motivation is a 2,000-word statement he posted online on the afternoon of the shooting and 60 photos he carefully picked from more than 1,000 he had taken, Richardson said. Some of the photos included Roof posing with the Confederate flag.
In Roof's essay, he said he thought blacks were stupid, inferior to whites and violent. Among other things, he wrote, "we have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."