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S. Carolina killer guilty, but will he be executed?

By Brian E. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Dec 20, 2016 - 2:00:55 PM

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Felicia Sanders, who watched her son Tywanza Sanders die at the hands of Dylann Roof, smiles while speaking to media after Roof was found guilty of murdering nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in a hate crime, Dec. 15, in Charleston S.C. "I wear a smile now because the nine victims wore beautiful smiles in photos before they were killed," Sanders said.
COLUMBIA, S.C.—A federal jury in Charleston, S.C., found Dylann Storm Roof guilty of all 33 counts against him stemming from the vicious murder of nine Black parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last year.

The jurors are due back in court January 3, 2017 for the sentencing phase where arguments will be heard on whether Mr. Roof gets death or life imprisonment.

The jury of nine Whites and three Blacks deliberated less than two hours in a trial that lasted only seven days for a case that tragically altered people for a lifetime. 

The penalty phase of the case will take on another controversial dimension because Mr. Roof is expected to act as his own attorney.

“As far as the guilty verdict, I am happy for the families,” said Student Minister DeAndre Muhammad, the Charleston, S.C., representative of the Nation of Islam. “But there wasn’t no way around that, especially with some of the recent things that were revealed … the 911 call, the gruesome pictures … we still have a long way to go,” he told The Final Call.

Student Minister Muhammad said although the verdict brings some level of relief to those who stood for justice, “it’s still not going to bring the family members back as far as those nine lives that were slaughtered brutally.”

Federal prosecutors began presenting witnesses with Felicia Sanders, 58, one of three survivors of Mr. Roof’s slaughter of innocent folk who sincerely welcomed the stranger into their church. The jury heard how then 21-year-old Roof was given a Bible and study material by Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a husband and father, who people remembered for his bass baritone speaking voice and as a popular state senator.

They heard the detailed description of how the killer sat through the final 30 minutes of the bible study and waited until the group stood together with eyes closed and heads bowed for prayer, before he started squeezing off rounds—beginning with Rev. Pinckney.

The prosecutors played the confession video of Mr. Roof with FBI agents where he admitted in detail to his crime. Jurors watched the matter of fact tone of the avowed White supremacist and nationalist describing his hatred and disdain for Black people.

In the week-long testimonies that included arresting officers, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and other specialists, prosecutors closed their case as they opened it, with a survivor of the carnage, Polly Sheppard, 72, a retired nurse.

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It was Ms. Sheppard who frantically dialed 911 after the murderer intentionally kept her alive to give witness he committed the bloody and act of calculated hate. She talked about hiding as many of the victims did, under a table and how Mr. Roof located her, pointed the .45 caliber Glock pistol at her and told her to “shut up” as she called for help from God out loud. “I was praying out loud,” she said. He asked if he had shot her yet.  “No,” she replied.

“‘I’m not going to,’” she said Mr. Roof told her.” ‘I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.’”

She vividly recalled how Mr. Roof stood and began shooting the 80 rounds, bullets striking victims multiple times. While some family members excused themselves from the courtroom, jurors also heard from the medical pathologist who performed autopsies on the victims.  Dr. Erin Presnell testified that each victim was shot at least five times.

In the end, Judge Richard Gergel denied efforts by Mr. Roof’s lawyers to enter evidence and witnesses that would address Mr. Roof’s mental state and reasoning capabilities while committing the massacre.   

Judge Gergel dismissed the evidence as irrelevant to whether Mr. Roof was guilty of the church attack.

The defense attorneys rested their case without calling witnesses. They never disputed the guilt or innocence of Mr. Roof and opted only to fight for a life sentence over capital punishment.

A possible death penalty raises questions about public perceptions of its use and whether that could impact the sentence. Jurors in the case, however, have said they are not opposed to capital punishment. Earlier this year, a South Carolina poll provided by the Death Penalty Information Center was conducted by the University of South Carolina.  The poll said 64.9 percent of Blacks in South Carolina opposed the death penalty for Mr. Roof, while 69.4 percent of Whites in South Carolinian supported putting Mr. Roof to death.

“Blacks were also more than twice as likely to support a sentence of life without parole for the church killings as to support the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of Black South Carolinians (64.7 percent) said that Roof should be sentenced to life without parole … while less than a third (30.9 percent) favored the death penalty,” pollsters said. 

The poll found “White South Carolinians were diametrically opposite with 64.6 percent saying they think Roof should be sentenced to death if convicted and 29.9 percent preferring life without parole.”

Monique Lyle, who conducted the poll, said the results reflected consistent opposition to the death penalty among most Blacks in the state.

Mr. Muhammad said Mr. Roof “doesn’t deserve to live” and there “should not be any speculation about that.”

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