CHARLESTON, S.C. - Dylann Storm Roof, the avowed white supremacist whose slaughter of nine black parishioners at a church-basement Bible study revulsed the nation, was sentenced to death today by a federal jury that took just three hours to reach its decision.
"We voted unanimously that the defendant shall be sentenced to death," said Judge Richard M. Gergel, reading the jury's decision to Roof, 22, a man who found inspiration in Adolf Hitler and a camaraderie of hate in an Internet community of like-minded racists.
A wisp of a man in an ill-fitting blue sweater and gray khaki pants, Roof stood impassively at the defense table as Gergel spoke, fiddling with papers at his fingertips.
The man whose rampage with a Glock .45-caliber pistol and 88 bullets - a number chosen for its connection with Hitler among white supremacists - was intended to start a race war in America said nothing.
Sitting among dozens of family members of the victims, the Rev. Sharon Risher said she "felt like my heart was going to pop."
Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed, said she had been ambivalent about the death penalty but had resigned herself to accept whatever decision the jury made.
"But now that they have said he will get the death penalty, I feel that they have given him what he deserves," she said. "It is well with my soul."
Her daughter, Aja' Risher, said in a tearful telephone interview that the verdict hit her hard.
"I didn't think the verdict would affect me the way it has; I haven't stopped crying," she said. "But I'm so happy that their lives matter. It's not just a terrible tragedy that happened. It renews my faith a little bit."
"Justice was served," said Kevin Singleton, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed. "It still doesn't change anything for the families, but I hope it can be a deterrent in the future."
Earlier in the day, standing before the same jury that convicted him last month on all 33 counts of federal hate crimes that he faced, Roof said, "I still feel like I had to do it."
Throughout Roof's trial, it has been difficult to know if Roof cares whether he lives or dies. He mounted virtually no defense and admitted to the crimes in the guilt phase of the trial. In the penalty phase, which began last week, Roof fired his court-appointed attorneys, including a noted death penalty specialist, and chose to represent himself - a move that most legal experts regard as extremely dangerous for any defendant.
In a halting and cryptic closing argument on Tuesday, Roof told the jury he had a right to ask them to spare his life, but "I'm not sure what good that would do."
But he also seemed to offer the jury a strategy to keep him from being executed. He noted that imposition of the death penalty required a unanimous decision by the jury.
"Only one of you needs to disagree," he said, in a soft voice.
Roof for the first time also seemed to obliquely raise the possibility that some emotional or mental condition may have contributed to his killing rampage. Previously, Roof had clashed with his court-appointed attorneys who wanted to introduce evidence of mental illness.
"Um, I think it's safe to say that no one in their right mind wants to go into a church and kill people," said Roof at the start of his seven-minute closing argument.
Roof pointed out to the jury that in his confession to the FBI, "I told them I had to do it. . . . Obviously, that's not true. Nobody made me do it."
Without fully explaining his meaning, Roof also said the prosecution "hates me" and that his murder of the nine parishioners, ages 26 to 87, was not motivated by hatred of black people.
Roof's closing statement followed a detailed two-hour closing argument by prosecutor Jay Richardson, who recapped the facts of the case, which have been uncontested by Roof.
Roof's guilt was never in doubt; he admitted to FBI interrogators that he had planned for months to kill black worshipers at the church, known as Mother Emanuel, because of the church's historic significance in the black community - he said it would "make the biggest wave" and hopefully inspire other whites to kill black people.
The only question was whether Roof, a ninth-grade dropout, would be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had sought the death penalty for the federal charges, said in a statement: "No verdict can bring back the nine we lost that day at Mother Emanuel. And no verdict can heal the wounds of the five church members who survived the attack or the souls of those who lost loved ones to Roof's callous hand. But we hope that the completion of the prosecution provides the people of Charleston - and the people of our nation - with a measure of closure."
Richardson displayed photos of all nine victims, contrasting photos of them smiling in life, and lying crumpled and bloody on a church basement floor after being shot by Roof.
Richardson called them all "the best among us," people who had been ministers and caregivers, teachers, coaches, parents and grandparents. He read each victim's name and spoke of the loss felt by their loved ones.
Of one, he said: "Never again will someone hear live that angelic voice singing 'How Great Thou Art.' "
Of another: "He no longer has a mother to come home to."
Through a spokeswoman, Roof's family released a statement that read, "We will always love Dylann. We will struggle as long as we live to understand why he committed this horrible attack, which caused so much pain to so many good people. We wish to express the grief we feel for the victims of his crimes, and our sympathy to the many families he has hurt. We continue to pray for the Emanuel AME families and the Charleston community."
Roof is now the 60th person on federal death row, but when or whether that sentence will ever be carried out remained unclear. The Justice Department has executed only three inmates since 1988, and the latest was in 2003.
Roof also faces a state murder trial that also carries a potential death penalty. No trial date has been scheduled.
Kevin Sullivan is a Post senior correspondent. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who has been based in Tokyo, Mexico City and London, and also served as the Post’s Sunday and Features Editor.
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