Church gunman insists to jury that he is not mentally ill

Dylann Roof is representing himself in the sentencing phase of his death penalty trial, but says he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present any evidence.

Robert Maniscalco/Reuters
Dylann Roof, who is facing the death penalty for the hate-fueled killings of nine black churchgoers, makes his opening statement at his trial in this courtroom sketch in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Sketch by Robert Maniscalco

Dylann Roof spoke Wednesday for the first time to the jurors who will decide whether he should be executed for fatally shooting nine black parishioners during a Bible study, insisting that he is not mentally ill and forgoing a chance to plead for his life.

The soft-spoken 22-year-old white man told the jury that he was not trying to keep any secrets from them. He did not offer remorse or seek forgiveness or ask them to spare him from a lethal injection.

"My opening statement is going to seem a little bit out of place," Mr. Roof said calmly as he delivered the brief remarks at a podium, occasionally glancing at notes. "I am not going to lie to you. ... Other than the fact that I trust people that I shouldn't and the fact that I'm probably better at constantly embarrassing myself than anyone who's ever existed, there's nothing wrong with me psychologically."

Shortly before Roof's statement, prosecutors presented a jailhouse journal in which he wrote that he did not regret the massacre or "shed a tear" for the dead.

Roof's attorneys have indicated that he chose to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his trial because he was worried his legal team might present embarrassing evidence about himself or his family. As early as last summer, they said they planned to introduce evidence that Roof suffers from mental illness, and they hinted at that idea again during closing arguments of the trial's guilt-or-innocence stage.

"I would ask you to forget it," Roof told jurors, referring to what his lawyers said then.

Prosecutors said Roof deserves the death penalty because he painstakingly chose to target vulnerable people at Emanuel AME Church in the June 2015 attack. He sat with church members for about 45 minutes and waited until their eyes were closed in prayer before opening fire. He told Polly Sheppard that he wanted to leave her alive to tell the world that he attacked a historic black church because blacks were "raping our women and taking over the nation."

Two other people also survived.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams said the "horrific acts justify the death penalty."

"He killed nine people. ... He killed them because of the color of their skin. He killed them because they were less than people," Mr. Williams said.

The panel has heard from Roof before in the form of his confession to the FBI and his racist manifesto. And on Wednesday, prosecutors read from the journal found in Roof's jail cell six weeks after his arrest. His handwritten words were projected on screens in the courtroom.

"I remember how I felt when I did these things and how I knew I had to do something and then I realize it was worth it," he wrote. "I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."

From his writings, it's clear that Roof does not believe in psychology. In one of his journals, he called the field "a Jewish invention" that "does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don't."

Prosecutors plan to call up to 38 people related to the slain and the survivors. The first witness to testify was Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor at Emanuel AME.

During more than two hours on the stand, Mrs. Pinckney described her husband as an affable figure who was widely respected as a state legislator and preacher and who was a goofy family man in private with his two young daughters.

"He always made time for the family, and he always made time for the girls," said Pinckney, describing her husband's affinity for cartoonish neckties and socks. "He was the person I think that every mom would be happy that their daughter met and married. ... I know that he loved me. And he knew how much that I loved him."

She talked about the night of the shootings, saying she and her then-6-year-old daughter, Malana, were in her husband's office when gunfire erupted. She locked the doors, shoved her daughter under a desk and put her hand over her daughter's mouth.

"She was like, 'Mama, is Daddy going to die?' And I told her, 'Malana, be quiet.'"

She said she believed she survived the shootings because she was meant to continue her husband's legacy, part of which involved fighting to get the Confederate flag removed entirely from the South Carolina Statehouse, which happened about a month after the attack.

"Yes the flag came down and so forth, but he just did so much," she said. "You can't please everyone. He tried to please as many people as he could."

Pinckney was not asked whether she thought Roof deserved the death penalty. Some family members of victims have offered forgiveness. Others have said they are undecided.

When it was Roof's turn to cross-examine Pinckney, he said, "No questions."

Roof has said he does not plan on calling any witnesses or introducing any evidence.

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