As Jennifer Pinckney took the stand Wednesday morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston, prosecutors passed her a photo labeled Government Exhibit 753. She smiled. It was a picture of her late husband, Clementa C. Pinckney. A prominent minister and state senator, there was no shortage of photos of him. But this one was different. He was at home, asleep on the couch. He wore sweatpants and a plain white T-shirt. His older daughter, Eliana, was curled up at his shoulder. His younger daughter, Malana, was sprawled out across his stomach. The three had been reading together, one of their favorite pastimes, when Pinckney snapped the picture. “They fell asleep and I just couldn’t resist myself,” she testified.
Mrs. Pinckney was the first in a long line of witnesses called by federal prosecutors in the sentencing trial of Dylann Roof last week. The avowed white supremacist was convicted in December for gunning down Reverend Pinckney and eight parishioners during a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. The crime shook the country. President Obama gave a stirring eulogy at Rev. Pinckney’s televised memorial service, singing Amazing Grace. The next day, in a brazen act of civil disobedience, activist Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole at the state capitol to take down the Confederate flag; soon after, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed legislation to remove the flag from the statehouse, in dedication to the Emanuel Nine. Across the country, Americans marveled at the expressions of forgiveness shown by grieving relatives who spoke at a bond hearing for Roof within days of the crime. But in Charleston, others remained torn, overwhelmed by grief and anger. A year and a half later, many struggle to define what justice would mean.
To the federal government, the answer is simple: “This defendant’s horrific act justifies the death penalty,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams said in his opening statement at the start of the sentencing trial on January 4. Roof, who confessed on tape soon after his arrest, had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. But the Obama administration rejected the plea deal, pushing forward with a capital trial. There was no doubt about its outcome at the guilt stage. In the face of overwhelming evidence — and the defense’s concession that Roof was guilty — jurors swiftly convicted Roof on 33 federal counts. The verdict was announced on December 15. After a holiday break, the court reconvened in the new year to decide whether Roof will live or die. Williams assured the jury that the previous proceedings had barely scratched the surface. The coming days would show how Roof shattered the lives of countless friends and relatives, he said, telling jurors to expect tears. “What you will hear will be very hard to listen to,” he warned. If the guilt portion of the trial had been difficult, he said, the sentencing phase “will be worse. It will be heartbreaking.”
The trial has indeed been emotionally fraught. It has also proven legally challenging, raising concerns about due process: Roof insisted on representing himself during the penalty phase, over the strenuous objections of his court-appointed attorney, veteran death penalty lawyer David Bruck. On the eve of the sentencing trial — and following a weekend of psychological evaluations — US District Judge Richard Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial, for the second time since the case began. But he also issued an unusual order to restrict Roof’s movement within the courtroom, barring him from approaching witnesses. “What I don’t want is a spectacle,” Judge Gergel said Wednesday morning, before the jury was called in, making clear the order would necessarily apply to prosecutors too.
But if there was any fear that Roof might lash out or launch a racist monologue in court, he has instead maintained a stony silence, showing little discernible reaction to witness testimony. He stares straight ahead at the defense table, expressionless, barely responding to Bruck’s attempts at advice, which he remains authorized to give. Most significantly, Roof has not brought forth anything resembling a defense, refusing to present witnesses or mitigating evidence, thus sabotaging whatever chance he may have to save his own life. In the briefest of opening statements Wednesday, Roof showed no remorse, instead asking jurors to forget anything his attorneys might have previously said about his mental well-being. “There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” he said. Indeed, in the racist screed that has been labeled his “manifesto,” Roof has rejected psychology itself as “a Jewish invention” that “does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
Roof’s psychological evaluations will remain sealed until after the verdict. But whatever his mental state, the 22-year-old high school dropout has cleared the path for prosecutors to send him to death row. In his opening statement, Williams set a chilling tone by revealing additional writings. The handwritten pages, discovered in his jail cell and written six weeks after the church massacre, are disturbing. “I want to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” Roof writes. “I am not sorry.”
In a preview of evidence to come, Williams read portions of the writings out loud during his opening. “I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed,” he said. “I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick country and I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of lower races.” Finally, he read, “I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself. I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place. I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that should never have existed.”
By the time Roof rose to give his opening statement, some on the victims’ side of the courtroom had heard enough. During the short break that followed, a group of black women stood huddled in the restroom. As others entered, one woman turned to ask, “Is he done?”
In early July 2016, after the Obama administration announced it would seek the death penalty against Roof, federal prosecutor Beth Drake wrote an open letter, posted on the Department of Justice website. It was addressed to “the Survivors and Victim Families of the Massacre at Mother Emanuel.” In her position as Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina, Drake committed to represent them as best she could.
“Each of you is on a journey,” she wrote, “a journey where you are working through not only the horrific crimes that occurred on June 17, 2015, but also how you will live into the future without your loved ones. … As a part of your journey, you are called to navigate the state and federal judicial system.” This was critical in holding accountable the person who so grievously harmed them, she explained. “I am sure you know that the American people are on the side of justice, and are vested in a process at the state and federal level that is full and fair. Justice will be done.”
Drake’s letter followed the departure of her boss, U.S. Attorney William Nettles. Assigned to his post by President Obama in 2010, Nettles had gained a reputation for his non-traditional approach to punishment, particularly when it came to minor drug crimes. “I don’t view it as our job to put people in prison,” he told the Post and Courier in June 2016. “I viewed it as our job to make South Carolina a better place.”
Handling the Roof case since the night of the massacre, Nettles became a dissenting voice within the DOJ. With early tension between state and federal prosecutors about who would try Roof first, Nettles had shown preference for the former, focusing mainly on bringing hate crimes charges against Roof, since South Carolina does not have such laws on the books. “I do feel that the role of the federal government is to do what the state is unwilling or unable to do,” Nettles told me over the phone in December. When it came to the death penalty, however, state prosecutors “were certainly willing and able to do this.”
Nettles resigned from his position last June, just a few weeks after Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that she would seek the death penalty against Roof. Nettles denies the timing had to do with the case. “I had a chance to make the case against the capital prosecution,” he said diplomatically. “I felt like I was able to provide a point of view that might have been lacking had I not been the United States Attorney. And I really appreciate the opportunity to express that point of view.” Now working as a defense attorney, Nettles writes occasional blog posts on his website. A recent entry is titled Why Defendants Should Not Represent Themselves in Their Own Criminal Case.
The DOJ’s insistence in seeking death against Roof has made for a strange — even unprecedented — scenario. State prosecutors may have been forced to step back when the DOJ brought forth its indictment, but they still plan to hold a capital trial of their own. If Drake’s open letter was an attempt to rationalize the two trials as necessary in the interest of justice, the situation has instead raised controversy and confusion. Whatever the political priorities of state and federal officials, it is not clear how the dual trials will serve the community they claim to represent. In Charleston, federal authorities will move on after the verdict. But for family, friends, and residents, a state trial will mean starting all over again: A new set of jurors will hear grisly testimony. Witnesses will again take the stand to describe their trauma. And survivors and relatives will continue to see Roof’s face in court and on the news every day.
If it was painful to speak in the face of her husband’s killer, Jennifer Pinckney was not showing it. Animated and engaging, she shared vivid memories of Clementa: how they first met reluctantly at the behest of college friends; how she would not let him pay for her pizza on their first “mini date.” On their official first date, he showed up with a mini chess game and flowers; later, when he realized flowers made her sneeze, he would send her Edible Arrangements instead.
On that first night, she said, they went to Red Lobster, a restaurant that would become Malana’s favorite. Their youngest daughter was known for challenging her dad — “she put him in her place,” Clementa’s best friend later testified. In a story that filled the courtroom with laughter, Pinckney described how Malana, no older than six, once faced off with her father over dessert. In a disciplinary measure, Clementa had told his daughter that she could only have one Oreo cookie that night, fewer than normal. “No Daddy, I get three Oreo cookies,” she replied with steely determination, telling her sister to bring her the rest. It was one of a few moments in which Roof’s expression appeared to change, breaking into a grimace, almost resembling a smile. Other times, his face flushed red. But for the most part he remained stoic, staring straight ahead.
Malana was with her mother at Mother Emanuel the night Roof murdered her father. In the most gripping part of her testimony, Pinckney described how they locked themselves in an office, hiding beneath a desk. She sharply ordered Malana to “shut up,” something she had never done. As the sound of the bullets got closer. Pinckney put her hand over Malana’s mouth. “I was like shhh shhh shh … and the next thing I knew, she put her hand over my mouth.” They were hiding like that when she heard the chimes above the church entrance, signaling Roof’s exit. Pinckney ran for her cell phone and dialed 911.
A recording of the 911 call was played in open court. It is harrowing. But by far the most difficult evidence over the days that followed was the pained testimony from witness after witness, describing the void left in their life after June 17, 2015. Among the most heartbreaking was Reverend Anthony Thompson, who brought the courtroom to tears with his emotional recollections of his beloved wife, Myra. He remembered how they had known each other as kids, then reconnected in college after she missed a bus to Charleston, where she went back every weekend to see her young son. The two-hour car rides became a weekly ritual; he came to admire her love of education and her devotion to family. On their wedding night, he said, she invited all her relatives to join them in their extra-large honeymoon suite, which did not entirely thrill him. Looking at a wedding photo submitted as evidence, he paused quietly, saying “wow,” as he looked at his wife.
On their last anniversary, Thompson surprised Myra with a beach outing. He bought her a hat and a red beach chair and packed some champagne. That day, they talked about the future, how they planned to move to Charlotte to be closer to their grandchildren. Instead, she was shot dead by Roof at the church that she loved, on a night when she had been excited to teach Bible study for the first time. Rushing to the scene, Thompson tried desperately to enter the church, then lost control, falling to the ground. “My world was gone,” he said. “It was just gone. I literally did not know what to do.” He began to sob. “If she’s gone, what am I here for? Nothing for me to do now, because the person I did it for is gone. I still don’t know what to do.”
By the start of the second day of the sentencing trial, Judge Gergel was forced to admonish prosecutors. With a list of 38 witnesses, the government’s case threatened to become overwhelming. “I’m concerned about preserving due process here,” he said, citing the length of their testimony. “I’m not trying to cut the soul out of the case,” he added. But “we need to do it more efficiently.”
The government began to move faster, cutting witnesses from its list. But the testimony was no less intense. One witness tearfully recalled a dream the night her mother died, in which she heard a voice coming from heaven saying her mommy was gone. “I knew that was my mom telling me something had happened,” she said. Another witness broke down completely as she recalled the moment she found out her sister had been killed. She could not bring herself to believe it — “I even tried calling her number,” she said, sobbing inconsolably, forcing the court to take a break. A prosecutor approached to console her, leading to objections by Roof, sustained by Judge Gergel.
Eventually, David Bruck broke his silence, standing to speak outside the presence of the jury. Since the very first witness, he had done everything he could to advise his former client of his rights, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. The resulting proceedings were violating “every principle restraining victim impact statements under the 8th Amendment,” he argued indignantly. “It is happening because this man cannot protect his own rights.” Bruck urged the court to reappoint him to defend Roof, or call a mistrial. “This is his sentencing, it is not a memorial service,” he said.
Bruck’s request was denied. “I did everything I could to persuade Mr. Roof not to represent himself,” Judge Gergel said. With indignation of his own, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson reminded the court, “He’s the one who chose to kill nine people — and he chose to do it to particularly good people.”
By Friday afternoon, nearly all relatives and loved ones had taken the stand, with many more tears shed inside and outside the courtroom. In a break, prosecutors brought law enforcement officials to discuss Roof’s continued devotion to white nationalism. Among the revelations: The screen name “Lil Aryan,” used by Roof to comment on a white supremacist website; his belief that Adolf Hitler will be canonized as a saint; an odd list of films he likes, including “The Notebook” and “12 Years a Slave,” the latter being “anti-white,” in his view, but nonetheless valuable since “the cinematography is beautiful.”
Prosecutors ended the week with testimony about Roof’s oldest victim, 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jurors had previously heard how he emptied an entire magazine of bullets into her elderly body. The juxtaposition was clear: If Roof is hatred personified, Jackson was the opposite, a great-grandmother, the oldest of 10 kids, and beloved matriarch of her family. On the stand, her son estimated she had some 200 nieces and nephews, who she welcomed at the house unconditionally. “‘No’wasn’t in her vocabulary,” her eldest grandson, Walter Jackson Jr, testified. He recalled how she chartered a bus for his wedding and shared a poem he had written for her 70th birthday celebration, a surprise party held at Mother Emanuel.
“It’s tough to love on everybody,” Jackson said as his testimony came to a close. “But she loved on everybody.”