For weeks, they’ve sat in a Charleston courtroom and learned the details of the murders that occurred inside Emanuel AME Church. They learned about the months of planning and racist ideology that motivated the 22-year-old white supremacist’s attack.
Roof claimed that he did want to start a race war by killing all those people in the church, but the victims’ family members assured him that he failed.
“You didn’t accomplish anything but deep hurt for other people,” said Shirrene Goss, sister of shooting victim Tywanza Sanders. “You’re going to realize you didn’t have to do this. It’s going to hit you hard and bring you to your knees.”
When Goss testified during the sentencing phase of Roof’s trial, she regretted that her son, only 9 weeks old when Sanders was killed, will never know his uncle. But as Goss spoke to Roof, she assured her brother’s killer that his actions had not undone her family. “We’re not broken. We’re hurt, yes. But we’re not broken,” Goss said.
Serving as both the first and final witness for federal prosecutors, Sanders’s mother, Felicia Sanders, began the trial by recounting the night that she watched her son murdered by Roof. Hiding under a small table with her young niece at her side, the two pretended to be dead while they lay in the blood of those left dying on the floor of the church’s fellowship hall. Already wounded, Tywanza Sanders reached out to Roof as he stalked the room. “We mean you no harm. You don’t have to do this,” Sanders told the gunman before Roof once again opened fire.
Even though she watched Roof execute her son, Felicia Sanders addressed Roof by his full name during Wednesday’s hearing, saying that he deserved respect, “The respect you didn’t give the victims.”
“You took my loved ones away from me and since June 17, I’ve gotten to know you. I’ve gotten to know you because you are in my head,” Sanders told Roof as she clutched the tattered Bible she carried to the church on the night of the shooting. Sanders said that she can no longer shut her eyes to pray out of fear of another attack, but she can still find comfort in the torn and bloodied Bible she showed to the court.
“Yes, I forgive you,” Sanders told Roof. “That’s the easiest thing I had to do. But you can’t help someone who can’t help themselves. And that’s exactly what you are.”
Roof remained unwilling to meet eyes with those addressing the court. He ignored demands by many of his victims’ loved ones to acknowledge their words and look their way.
“How can you sit here every day looking dumbfaced and acting like you did nothing?” asked Ashland Temoney, the niece of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “You are the biggest coward I have seen in my life. You are the biggest coward because even today you can’t look at us.”
Several family members who addressed the court Wednesday told Roof that his soul was bound for hell, while others maintained that he was still capable of redemption. Many offered to pray for him. Some offered to pray with him. The Rev. Sharon Risher, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, called for Roof’s life to be spared.
“I still don’t want you to die. I want you to be able to sit in that cell,” Risher said, asking that Roof consider the lives he’s taken. “You have made them martyrs. You have made them the face of America. You have given me a voice and a platform I never would have had to crusade for them.”
Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of Middleton-Doctor, told Roof that she wanted to hate him, but her faith wouldn’t allow it. She had questioned why her sister was taken from her during such an act of violence. “I protect the soul, not the flesh” was the message Middleton-Brown said she received.
“You put forth all that effort, and you got nothing. You didn’t touch her soul,” Middleton-Brown told Roof about her sister. “Welcoming you into their Bible study and place of worship was their way of cleansing themselves. They were without spot or wrinkle. … Dylann Roof, you can’t look at me, but when you are alone you will hear me. You will see my face because of my sister. I am a black woman, and I am proud.”