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Angry, forgiving families confront Dylann Roof at hearing

Profile image for By Jeffrey Collins
By Jeffrey Collins

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — One by one, family members of nine slain church members confronted Dylann Roof on Wednesday before he was formally sentenced to die for the slaughter. There were laughter and tears; love and hate; anger and forgiveness; despair and hope.

Some shouted at the avowed white supremacist as he stared ahead emotionless. One woman said she would visit him in prison and pray with him. They told Roof their hearts were forever broke, but that he failed his goal to stir up more racial hatred for blacks because the goodness of those he killed shined through much brighter than his cold, dark heart.

Roof never looked at them.

An aunt of 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, the youngest victim killed during the 2015 slayings at a black church, demanded that Roof look at her as she talked about her nephew’s “great, big heart” that couldn’t be donated because of the shooting investigation.

“Dylann,” Janet Scott said quietly as she started speaking. “Dylann! DYLANN!” she said, her voice rising. Toward the end of her remarks, she said, “I wish you would look at me, boy.”

Roof, 22, just gazed ahead, his head tilted down slightly as he has during much of the trial.

A jury sentenced an unrepentant Roof to death on Tuesday. Roof had one final opportunity to ask for mercy, but instead told jurors he still “felt like I had to do it.”

Family members of the victims testified at Roof’s trial, but the formal sentencing hearing gave them a chance to speak directly to Roof, without prosecutors or the judge interrupting or asking questions.

Roof will also have the opportunity to speak, but his punishment will not change. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel will formally sentence Roof later Wednesday.

Felicia Sanders, who survived the shooting, said she forgave Roof, echoing comments she made after the shooting. But she noted Roof has done nothing to save himself.

Sanders brought her bullet-torn, blood-stained Bible she had with her on the night of the June 17, 2015. She told Roof he still lives in her head, and that when she hears a balloon pop or fireworks it returns her to that night.

“Most importantly, I can’t shut my eyes to pray,” Sanders said.

Roof sat through a 45-minute Bible study at Mother Emanuel with 12 others before he opened fire as they stood and closed their eyes for a final prayer. He fired 77 shots. Each victim was hit at least five times. Three people survived. Roof told one of them he was sparing her life so she could tell the world he was killing the worshippers at Emanuel AME because he hated black people

The willingness of some of the relatives to forgive dominated the news in the days after the killings. But that didn’t mean they felt his life should be spared. And there are others who said forgiveness is still a work in progress.

“You are Satan. Instead of a heart, you have a cold dark space,” said Gracyn Doctor, the daughter of DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “Hopefully you will go straight to hell because he can’t stand to look at you.”

Roof told FBI agents when they arrested him that he wanted the shootings to bring back segregation or perhaps start a race war. Instead, the slayings had a unifying effect as South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its Statehouse for the first time in more than 50 years. Other states followed suit, taking down Confederate banners and monuments. Roof had posed with the flag in photos.

The jury convicted Roof last month of all 33 federal charges he faced, including hate crimes. He never explained his actions to jurors, saying only that “anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason for it.”

Roof insisted he was not mentally ill and did not call any witnesses or present any evidence.

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Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard and Alex Sanz contributed to this report.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/ .

Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins .

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This story has been corrected to show Felicia Sanders was not the survivor Roof spared to spread his message. It also corrects the spelling of Dylann in a headline.