Showing no emotion, Dylann Roof pleaded guilty on Monday to killing nine African-American parishioners, ending a nearly two-year, gut-wrenching saga for the survivors and the families of those killed at a historic Charleston church.
“Guilty,” Roof said to Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson, when asked how Roof wished to plea.
Roof, a white supremacist from the Columbia area, entered the guilty plea in state court to nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder for the slayings of nine victims at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
Under the plea agreement, he will spend nine consecutive life sentences in prison. Roof will now be sent to a federal prison, to await his death sentence after being found guilty in federal court in December on hate crime charges.
Survivors and family members of those killed were allowed to address Nicholson before the sentence was handed down. But for the first time, a member of Roof’s family also addressed the court.
Roof’s public defender, Ashley Pennington, first said he suspected no one from Roof’s family would want to speak. Pennington said Roof’s mother wanted the court to know that she had “expressed to me the love of her son.” During the federal trial, Roof’s mother collapsed and was taken out of the courtroom on a stretcher by paramedics.
But then, Pennington turned to Roof’s paternal grandparents, who were sitting in court. Joe Roof, Dylann Roof’s grandfather, approached the podium.
“I want everyone to understand that nothing is all bad,” said Joe Roof, a Columbia area attorney. “And Dylann is not all bad.”
Joe Roof lamented his grandson’s actions, saying he and his wife have been “distressed and just sick” over what happened to the families of the victims. Joe Roof said it was a situation that he never thought possible.
“What happened here, I will never understand,” he said. “I will go to my grave not understanding what happened other than I lost the grandson that I love and likely today is the last time that I will see him. I’m just aching to hold him and hug him as I did when he was a tot.”
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said after the hearing that it took “a lot of courage” for Joe Roof to apologize for his grandson’s crimes.
Malloy also spoke during the hearing, on behalf of the family of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the first victim killed. Pinckney served in the Senate with Malloy.
Malloy read a statement from Jennifer Pinckney, Clementa Pinckney’s widow, who locked herself and a young daughter inside a nearby office during the shootings: “It is our hope that everyone finds peace.”
Melvin Graham also spoke on behalf of his family about the death of his sister, Cynthia Hurd.
“This situation has tested our faith in every way possible,” Graham said. “But I’m glad to say that we’re still holding on.”
Nicholson and 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said they hope Roof pleading guilty will bring closure to the victims’ families. Nicholson accepted each murder and attempted murder charge separately, and the nine life sentences were imposed.
Roof mostly likely will be transferred to a high-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where the federal death row is located, said Andy Savage, a Charleston lawyer who represents families of the victims as well as the three survivors.
Roof – who turned 23 earlier this month – was set to face a state trial this spring.
Roof opened fire on a Wednesday night on June 17, 2015, after sitting nearly an hour with members of a small Bible study group. He later said in federal court that he purposely spared the lives of three who were there, while protesting some of the charges filed against him.
His racist viewpoints were discovered after the shooting in an online manifesto and echoed during his federal trial. They were rejected as state lawmakers voted to remove from the State House grounds the Confederate flag prominent in so many of Roof’s self-posted photos. He chose Emanuel AME because it is one of the country’s oldest black congregations and he wanted to start a race war, he told the FBI in a videotaped confession.
But Wilson said Roof’s actions instead triggered an “unbelievable, touching, moving inspirational legacy” for the survivors and the families of the victims.
“Dylann Roof’s mission was an epic, epic failure,” Wilson said. “He planned to divide us. He planned to start a race war. … What you all saw – what the world saw – was peace, unity, enlightenment and love. And that’s not what he counted on. And in that regard, I think it should bring us some happiness that he was such a failure.”
Staff writer John Monk contributed.