Roof trial stirs question: How do race and forgiveness intersect with justice?

Dylann Roof was convicted across the street from the courthouse where former police officer Michael Slager's trial for shooting Walter Scott in the back ended with a deadlocked jury.

David Goldman/AP/File
Allen Sanders kneels next to his wife Georgette, both of McClellanville, S.C., as they pray at a sidewalk memorial in front of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., June 20, 2015.

When nine black churchgoers in Charleston were massacred by a white man with Confederate sympathies, the city stayed calm as the victims' families offered examples of grace and forgiveness amid the horror.

Now, shooter Dylann Roof has been convicted in a federal death penalty trial – but some say a continuing succession of killings of black people feels at odds with the call to forgive.

As The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote last week:

In some ways, the federal death penalty case against Roof represents a White House keen on underscoring that hate has consequences – a message that comes amid a resurgence of reported hate crimes in the US and at a time when minority communities are feeling a fundamental sense of inequality when it comes to justice and race. 

The case could, in part, spark a conversation about history that some Americans say is sorely needed. "I've always viewed this case as a premier opportunity to litigate racism and the destructive issues of race," New York attorney Anthony Ricco, who has participated in 45 death penalty defense cases, told the Charleston Post and Courier. "Unraveling the why is our spiritual release of racism."

Mr. Roof's guilty verdict came weeks after a deadlocked jury was unable to unanimously convict Michael Slager, a white ex-police officer, for shooting Walter Scott in the back as he fled during an April 2015 traffic stop. Mr. Scott's death was one of many shootings by police of unarmed black men that have sparked a national protest movement. Such cases have stoked a longing for justice among black Americans looking for someone to be held accountable when one of their own is slain – a rarity in the past few years of deaths.

The proximity of the cases – literally tried across the street from each other – left the Rev. Kylon Middleton unsure about what Roof's fate would be. Rev. Middleton, pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, counted the slain pastor of Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church as his closest friend. He sat in the courtroom daily, from the start of jury selection until the verdict was rendered.

"You can't assume people are going to do the right thing," Middleton said. "Some people, based on race or bias ... will never go against someone of the same race."

Much more predictable, Middleton said, is society's expectation of forgiveness – especially from black Americans. He said he is still wrestling with the notion as he mourns his friend and supports his friend's wife and children, left without a husband and a father because of racial hate.

After the Slager mistrial, nothing is a foregone conclusion – even with an abundance of evidence, said Herb Frazier, co-author of a book about the Emanuel AME Church shootings that left nine worshippers dead in June 2015. They were shot by Roof after he was welcomed into their weekly Bible study.

"A lot of this is unsettling emotionally, and there seems to be no resolution to anything," Mr. Frazier said.

Roof was convicted Thursday after more than a week of often emotional testimony that included survivors' accounts of the killings.

At Roof's bond hearing last June, several relatives of his victims told Roof they forgave him and asked for God's grace on his soul. The gestures of compassion were praised as a remarkable response to overwhelming grief and tragedy, and held forth as a model for the country.

Felecia Sanders, whose son Tywanza was killed by Roof as he attempted to shield a church elder, has been forced to grapple personally with the question. She told Roof at his bond hearing last summer, "May God have mercy on you."

As one of two adult survivors of the shooting, Sanders was the first prosecution witness in the trial. During the Sanders called him "evil, evil, evil" and said he "should rot in hell."

Middleton said the families' impulse to forgive may have been more knee-jerk than genuine.

"I don't think they had time to absorb the fact that their loved ones were heinously murdered," Middleton said. "The country automatically expected us to be forgiving."

In a tragic twist of fate, Pinckney had called for prayers from the floor of the South Carolina Senate for the Scott and Slager families, just weeks before he was gunned down by Roof.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, is still trying to process the Charleston shootings and the notion of forgiveness. After the Slager decision, Rev. Tyler was discouraged that "400 years later, we're still in the same place, with many people feeling like black people don't belong here."

"Repeatedly, black people in America have shown the willingness to forgive, but too many refuse to meet us there," Tyler said. "The rest of the country looked at that moment and said, 'This is wonderful,' thinking (blacks) have forgiven white people for all of the wrongs that have happened in America."

Activist Bree Newsome – who made headlines when she scaled a flagpole at South Carolina's capitol and pulled down the Confederate flag after the Emanuel shootings – placed the Slager case on a continuum of injustice against black people in America.

Ms. Newsome said that while her Christian faith was moved by the families of the Emanuel shooting victims, she doesn't necessarily subscribe to the notion of forgiveness around black death.

"Part of our history ... is this pattern of a lot of pressure always being placed on the black community to forgive, to move on, to make peace, when nothing has actually been resolved," said Newsome, adding that her great-uncle was lynched and that her grandmother saw the Ku Klux Klan attack black people in Jim Crow South Carolina. "It's deeply offensive. It's never just about one incident. It's about this long history of violence that black people have experienced."

Slager is expected to be retried. Outside of the courtroom, Scott's shooting had been seen by many in South Carolina and across the country as an open-and-shut case of guilt. The mistrial was the latest defeat for those pushing for police reforms after similar, recent incidents in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati – leaving some wondering how high the bar for accountability is for officers who shoot unarmed black men. There have been few officer prosecutions or convictions in recent cases.

A University of South Carolina study released on the first anniversary of the Emanuel shootings showed that 90 percent of blacks in the state believed charging Slager with murder was the right decision, and that more than 70 percent felt police are too quick to use deadly force. While the survey did not pose the question of forgiveness, co-author Monique Lyle pointed out that the majority of black South Carolinians polled did not feel Roof should be sentenced to death.

"It would be a mistake to think that forgiveness ... is the same thing as not wanting justice," Ms. Lyle said. "I think blacks in South Carolina do want to see justice being served. It's possible to show forgiveness without feeling someone shouldn't be held accountable."

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