An eyewitness of the brutal mass shooting at a historic South Carolina church told Dylann Roof at his sentencing on Wednesday she can no longer close her eyes to pray since he murdered nine black parishioners who had bowed their heads for a benediction.
“You’re in my head every day,” Felicia Sanders told Roof, condemned by jurors on Tuesday to die for the 2015 killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The same jury of nine whites and three blacks last month found him guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes and obstruction of religion.
Wednesday’s sentencing of Roof is a formality as the judge cannot alter the jury’s decision on the death penalty.
Sanders, 59, was the first of those affected by the tragedy to speak at the 22-year-old white supremacist’s formal sentencing hearing in federal court. Her son, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, died in the attack.
“I cannot shut my eyes to pray, even when I try I cannot because I have to keep my eye on everyone around me,” she said.
She showed Roof her blood-stained Bible from the evening of June 17, 2015, when he gunned down churchgoers gathered to study scripture.
“Yes I forgave you,” she said. “That was the easiest thing I had to do. But you can’t help someone who won’t help themselves.”
Her words echoed Roof’s first court appearance after the shooting, where some loved ones of the victims shocked the country with their merciful tone toward the suspect.
But Sanders and others have learned more about Roof in the 19 months since, hearing at his trial about his hatred toward minorities, the calculated nature of the shooting and his lack of remorse.
The dead included Tywanza Sanders; Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church’s pastor and a state senator; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson, 59; and Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.
On Wednesday, family members called Roof a coward and a fool and said he deserved the death penalty. Some asked him to look at them as they spoke. He did not.
“I wish they could enact another law to cut off a limb each time you go up to appeal,” said Tyrone Sanders, husband of Felicia and father of Tywanza.
Despite the hurt and anger, however, several people said they remained committed to forgiveness.
“I wanted to hate you, God, I wanted to hate you, but my faith told me no,” said Doctor’s sister, Bethane Middleton Brown. “You didn’t win.”
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alan Crosby)