CHARLESTON, South Carolina—For the third time in a little more than a month, Felicia Sanders stared down her son’s killer in a courtroom.
Twice before she had testified from the witness stand—once to help establish the guilt of Dylann Roof and again to help a jury decide to sentence him to death.
On Wednesday she spoke in court for a third time as part of Roof’s formal sentencing at the Charleston Federal Courthouse, describing how he upended a Bible study she attended at Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015, by suddenly spraying 77 bullets and shooting nine people dead as they closed their eyes and stood to pray.
Speaking from a lectern in the center of the courtroom, Sanders was allowed to address the convicted killer directly, 19 months after surviving his racially-motivated attack by playing dead and smearing herself in the warm blood of his victims, all while hushing and clutching her young granddaughter and witnessing the death of her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders.
Felicia Sanders said Roof has been “in her head” since the shooting and was responsible for her adopting an attitude of “I can’t.”
“I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t (hear an acorn drop from a tree). Most importantly I cannot shut my eyes and pray,” said Sanders. “I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”
She said she forgave the killer, who had documented his extensive racist thoughts in two manifestos and assorted drawings featuring racist symbols, along with photographs of himself posing with a gun and the Confederate flag.
“But you can’t help someone who won’t help themselves,” said Sanders, “and that is you. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Sanders’ daughter, Shirrene Goss, then addressed Roof, describing him as “the worst kind of evil” and remarking on the pointlessness of his crime.
“You didn’t start a race war. You didn’t rid the world of black people,” said Goss. “You didn’t accomplish anything but deep hurt for a lot of people.”
Goss was followed by her father, Tyrone Sanders, who challenged Roof to look his way. When Roof did not heed Sanders’s command and looked straight ahead at a wall, as was his habit for nearly the entire trial, Sanders taunted his son’s killer by telling him to close his eyes and imagine a member of his family procreating with a black man in Zimbabwe.
Tyrone Sanders said he wished “they could enact a law in which they cut off a limb every time you appeal.” Sanders then said that once Roof exhausted his supply of limbs, he wished the amputee would then be turned over to his parents’ care in order to save taxpayers money.
Following these comments from Tywanza Sanders’ parents and sister, more than 30 people from eight other families took to the lectern to voice similar sentiments, all while Roof seemed to pay them no attention, much to some family members’ annoyance.
Many expressed confidence Roof would “rot in hell,” with witnesses describing him as “the devil,” “the spawn of Satan” and “Satan himself, filled with evil and hate.”
“How dare you sit there every day looking dumb-faced, acting like you did nothing wrong,” said Ashland Temoney, a niece of victim Depayne Middleton.
“How dare you smile or smirk…,” said Temoney. “You are the biggest coward I have ever seen…you can’t even be a man and look at us as people…the very sight of you makes me sick.”
Temoney told Roof that he failed in his objective to divide blacks and whites through the onset of a race war, referencing the public dialogue about race relations that has followed in the wake of the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church and other racially-tinged shootings.
“Blacks and whites, believe it or not, are having meaningful conversations…we’re becoming closer,” said Temoney. “Your mission failed. FAILED! FAILED! FAILED! FAILED!”
“You brought all nine families together. We are Charleston strong,” said Temoney. “We are the family that love built.”
Other relatives and friends of the victims spoke in gentler, though still hurtful, tones, forgiving Roof and urging him to repent for his actions.
“The only thing wrong with him is his heart,” said Blondell Gadsden, a sister to victim Myra Thompson. “I ask God to please work on his heart.”
A sister-in-law to victim Cynthia Hurd, Sheila Capers, offered to visit Roof in prison and pray with him.
“I pray that God sends someone to you to reach you,” said Capers, “so when you are executed you’ll be able to go to heaven, too.”
Gary Washington, a deaf man who lost his mother, Ethel Lance, in the shooting, used sign language to described how “freaked out” he became when he learned his mother was involved in the church massacre.
“Now I don’t have anybody to help care for me,” signed Washington. “To you, Dylann, I know you’ll be burning in hell.”
No family or friends spoke on Roof’s behalf. The killer, convicted in December on 33 charges related to the church shooting, made no comments himself except to ask for new court-appointed attorneys, saying he did not trust his current legal counsel.
United States District Judge Richard Gergel denied that request, telling Roof his lawyers had been loyal and zealous, even as Roof sidelined them twice during the trial, acting as his own attorney during jury selection and sentencing proceedings.
Acting on the verdict reached on Tuesday by a jury, Gergel formally sentenced Roof to the death penalty on 18 federal charges and life imprisonment on 15 federal charges.
“This trial has produced no winners, only losers,” said Gergel.
Despite the trial’s closure, some observers were still left mystified by Roof’s decision to unload dozens of bullets into a group of worshipers that had welcomed him into their fold for Bible study.
“What are you? What kind of subhuman miscreant could commit such evil?” said Marsha Spencer, a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church who likened Roof to the mass murderers Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler before labeling him a “pathetic and reviled excuse for a human being.”
“The last image I want to see of you is you being led away in handcuffs to await your gruesome destiny,” said Spencer.
Moments later Spencer got her wish. Officially sentenced to death, Roof was escorted out of the courtroom by U.S marshals, soon to take his place on death row.