USA Justice First Look

Death sentence for Dylann Roof: Charleston grapples with hate and grace

Charleston's black community, especially, has struggled with a special kind of anguish and tribulation with racist roots and recent wounds.

Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church, appears in this US District Court of South Carolina evidence photo, which was originally taken from Mr. Roof's website.
Courtesy/Reuters
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Family members of the nine parishioners killed during the closing prayer of their midweek Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., were given one final chance Wednesday morning to face the white supremacist sentenced to death for the slayings.

The same jury that convicted Dylann Roof last month on all 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, decided Tuesday that he should be executed for committing such crimes, for which he has shown no remorse. US District Judge Richard Gergel scheduled Wednesday's hearing to verify the jury's decision. It will be the only chance the victims' loved ones have to address Mr. Roof and the court directly without having to answer questions.

For the city's black community, especially, this case has inflicted a special kind of anguish. While white locals largely support Roof's death sentence as appropriate, local African Americans – some of whom have been quick to express forgiveness for the hate-fueled murders – wrestle with the possibility that there could be a bigger picture to consider, as The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported from Charleston last week.

"The direction that the families of the victims have taken in this is clearly trying to provide witness to a larger situation. They’re trying to move the history in a different direction," Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told the Monitor.

To some, Roof's hate echoes a history of racism, a time when Charleston's white residents feared that black slaves would take power. It points to a history of violence used to subjugate black people and black communities. Even so, the African Methodist Episcopal church, which was born more than two centuries ago at the site of the killings, had urged the jury to forgo the death penalty – an acknowledgement both that Roof does not represent white people as a whole and that justice and forgiveness can coexist.

Expelling racial injustice "means being open for a cure from unbearable pain" and "willingness to bind our wounds to forgive offenders," Bishop Frank Reid III said in a statement.

But Melvin Graham, who'd sister was killed in the shooting, said justice had been served.

This is a very hollow victory because my sister is still gone,” he told the Post and Courier. “I wish that this verdict could have brought her back, but it can’t. What it can do is send a message to those who feel the way he [Roof] feels that this community will not tolerate it.”

Roof, who offered a less-than-five-minute statement after the prosecution took two hours telling the jury that the defendant deserved to die, contested the very notion of hatred.

"Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I am filled with hate has no idea what real hate is," he said, despite admitting to the FBI that he had sought to bring back segregation or even launch a race war.

"Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the prosecution hates me since they are the ones trying to give me the death penalty?" Roof later added, as the local paper reported. "You could say, 'Of course they hate you. Everyone hates you. They have good reason to hate you.' I’m not denying that. My point is that anyone who hates anything, in their mind, has a good reason."

Contrary to the killer's aim, though, South Carolinians united in the wake of the June 17, 2015, murders. Leaders removed the Confederate flag, which Roof had proudly displayed in photos, from Statehouse grounds for the first time in five decades, and other states did likewise.

And the groundswell of forgiveness from those harmed by Roof's actions demonstrated a peculiar commitment to progress not through vengeance but through both grace and law. University of Houston sociologist Shayne Lee said the phenomenon "seems absurd, but it's beautiful."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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