clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The trial of Dylann Roof for the Charleston church shooting, explained

He killed nine people at a black church. And a jury has now sentenced him to death.

Dylann Roof appears via video conference in court.
Dylann Roof appears via video conference in court.
Grace Beahm/Pool via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for the racist mass shooting attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

It was more than a year and a half ago that Roof walked into the church. He did not go in there to learn, pray, and worship, as the predominantly black congregants did. After sitting at the Bible study session for nearly an hour, Roof pulled out a gun and fired 77 shots — killing nine people.

The shooting was a time of massive tragedy and mourning for the nation. People of all parties came together to condemn the horrific attack, which was motivated by Roof’s racist views. President Barack Obama, in a brief moment that would come to define his presidency, sang “Amazing Grace” at the eulogy for the victims.

The trial played out in two phases: In December, a jury convicted Roof on all 33 federal counts filed against him, including hate crimes resulting in death. In January, Roof was sentenced to death. He is the first person to get the death penalty under federal hate crimes law, according to the Associated Press.

From here, the case will likely go through several appeals and court procedures — which could take decades as Roof and his lawyers potentially exhaust all available legal avenues to prevent capital punishment.

The trial took some unusual turns. Some of the survivors and family of the victims actually oppose the death penalty, arguing instead for mercy. “My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was killed in the shooting, told the New York Times. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”

Then Roof pushed to represent himself as his own lawyer — a move that US District Judge Richard Gergel warned him was unwise. Roof ultimately hired back his lawyers for the first phase of the trial, but opted to represent himself in the sentencing phase. Roof’s lawyers have suggested that he is afraid of embarrassing information getting out in the trial should he not be in control of the case. (Kevin Sack reported for the New York Times that self-representation is rare but not unprecedented in death penalty cases, although it almost always ends badly for the defendant.)

There was never any real doubt as to whether Roof actually carried out the shooting. In a recorded confession, Roof said, “I went to that church in Charleston, and I did it.” The question had long been how, exactly, he would be punished for the crime. And the answer to that question, according to a jury of Roof’s peers, should be death.

Dylann Roof killed nine people at a predominantly black church

Dylann Roof appears in court. Grace Beahm/Pool via Getty Images

Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, shooting and killing nine black congregants.

Here's a list of the nine victims, reported by Andrew Knapp for the Post and Courier:

  • Clementa Pinckney, 41: state senator, church pastor, and rising star in the South Carolina Democratic Party
  • Cynthia Hurd, 54: St. Andrews regional branch manager for the Charleston County Public Library system
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton: a church pastor, speech therapist, and coach of the girls' track and field team at Goose Creek High School
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26: who had a degree in business administration from Allen University
  • Ethel Lance, 70: a retired Gilliard Center employee who previously worked as the church janitor
  • Susie Jackson, 87: Lance's cousin and a longtime church member
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49: who retired in 2005 as Charleston County director of the Community Development Block Grant Program
  • Mira Thompson, 59: a pastor at the church
  • Daniel Simmons Sr., 74: who died in a hospital operating room

Two women and a child survived the attack at the church basement, while two other people hid in an adjacent office and survived. According to investigators, Roof yelled racist insults and told congregants that he intended to start a race war between black and white people, because, in his view, black people were raping white women and taking over the country. He reportedly spared the two women and child in the church basement so they would be able to report what he said to the rest of the world.

Roof, however, appeared to be unsure of how many people he shot. Asked by federal investigators how many he killed, he said, “Five, not really sure. Maybe four?”

Roof fled after the shooting, but he was caught in North Carolina when someone called the police after recognizing Roof from media coverage. His federal trial is now underway.

Roof’s attack was motivated by racism, like many previous attacks on black churches

Dylann Storm Roof flags


Roof’s motives, as survivors can attest to, were racist. Not only were his comments as he carried out the shooting racist, but shortly after the massacre an online manifesto surfaced in which Roof wrote in detail about his racist views. A Facebook picture also showed Roof wearing a jacket depicting the flags of racist regimes in Africa, including apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. And Roof's roommate, Dalton Tyler, told ABC News, “He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”

Roof also said in a videotaped confession, “What I did is still minuscule to what they're doing to white people every day.” He added, “I do consider myself a white supremacist.”

Roof’s attack, however, is far from the first time that a black church was the target of a racist assault. These attacks have happened again and again throughout American history, typically motivated by black churches’ work in combating systemic racism.

The most infamous of these attacks is the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Civil rights groups during the early 1960s actively targeted Birmingham for protests, knowing that the city — and the state of Alabama as a whole — was a hub for white supremacy groups and supporters of segregation. The backlash was fierce: Ku Klux Klan members routinely called in bomb threats — and others detonated homemade bombs — to disrupt civil rights meetings and church services. The anger eventually led to one of the most well-known terrorist attacks of the civil rights movement.

On September 1963, a bomb detonated at the predominantly black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. About 200 people were in the building, many attending Sunday school. Four black girls died, and at least 20 others were injured.

The attack quickly gained national attention as a symbol of anti-black oppression. But it would be decades until some of the perpetrators were tried and convicted, and one suspect even died before he could go to trial. The severe lag in justice led some of the survivors and relatives of the victims to reject Congress’s 2013 commemoration of the victims — arguing that it was too little, too late.

Before Roof, the Emanuel AME Church was also attacked, with the church actually burned down at one point.

As Sarah Kaplin explained for the Washington Post, Denmark Vesey, a founding member of the church, attempted to lead one of the nation’s most famous failed slave uprisings, which would have involved more than 9,000 black slaves. But the revolt was foiled when several slaves turned Vesey in, leading to his capture, a trial, and hanging.

White leaders blamed the attack on the Emanuel AME Church, saying it helped foster the attacks. They instituted harsh laws against black churches, including a ban on all-black services. The congregation was then dispersed, and the church was burned. (The congregation would continue to meet in secret.)

The Emanuel AME Church’s experience represented the history of black churches in general: It was used to evade the systemic racism of the era, and it was attacked by white leaders who wanted to keep their racist policies in place. “That is a microcosm of how and why churches have become targeted,” Gerald Horne, a civil rights historian at the University of Houston, previously told me.

But just as the church survived before, it has survived the Roof’s attack: The Emanuel AME Church, instead of closing its doors, has continued holding events and recruiting more congregants. “Let all that you do be done in love,” the church, quoting scripture, wrote in a message one year after the shooting.

Racist attacks like Roof’s fit America’s original definition of terrorism

Following the shooting, there was a debate on social media about whether the attack should be considered an act of terrorism.

In the US and the West, terrorism is typically associated with radical Muslim extremists.

But the original national definition of terrorism encompassed racist attacks on black people. The first federal anti-terrorism act passed in the US, the Ku Klux Act, came in 1871 as a response to terrorism by the KKK, a white supremacist group.

Back then, anti-black violence was fairly widespread: The Freedmen’s Bureau recorded hundreds of racist murders and attacks on black men throughout the South in the late 1860s.

The goal of these attacks was terror: to terrorize black people who dared to live in places once comfortably controlled by white Americans, and to terrorize black voters from voting for Republicans who supported civil rights legislation and actions at the time.

A chart of racist attacks on South Carolina freedmen. Christophe Haubursin/Vox

So the federal government, led by President Ulysses Grant, stepped in to protect legal order and the integrity of the political system in the South. And one of the measures they took was the Ku Klux Act, which made it illegal under federal law to conspire to threaten elected officials and voters to deprive them of equal protection. The law and its aggressive enforcement by the Grant administration is widely credited with helping take down the KKK’s first iteration as a national terrorist group.

Still, the KKK and white supremacy would continue to resurface through US history. A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative found that lynchings in the South killed at least 4,000 black Americans between 1877 and 1950 — and that count is very likely a huge underestimate, given that there’s no documentation for many of these killings. And Southern governments imposed white supremacy through Jim Crow laws, which restricted black voting rights and enforced racial segregation, until the 1960s.

Thankfully, America has made some progress in reducing the worst of these abuses — although many issues remain, particularly in economic disparities and within policing and the criminal justice system more broadly.

This progress, though, is one of the many reasons that Roof’s attack was so horrifying: Things like that just aren’t supposed to happen anymore.

America’s levels of gun violence are unique in the developed world

Beyond the racist aspects of Roof’s attack and the long history of racism in America it raises, the attack also brings up another tragically unique American story: the prevalence of gun violence in the US.

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times Sweden’s, and nearly 16 times Germany’s, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

America has far more gun homicides than other developed countries.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

What’s more, there appears to be a correlation between America’s high levels of gun violence and gun ownership, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:

America has more guns — and more gun deaths.

Tewksbury Lab

Research reviews by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center have concluded that more gun ownership leads to more gun violence. Other factors, such as socioeconomic issues, contribute to violence, but guns are the one issue that makes America unique relative to other developed countries in comparable socioeconomic circumstances.

Studies have found this at both the state and country level. Take, for instance, this chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard researchers, showing the correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:

A chart that shows the close correlation between levels of gun ownership and gun homicide rates. Social Science and Medicine

A more recent study from 2013, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, reached similar conclusions: After controlling for multiple variables, the study found that a 1 percentage point increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate.

This holds up around the world. As Zack Beauchamp explained for Vox, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

Guns are not the only factor that contributes to violence. (Other factors include, for example, concentrations of poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership and easy access to guns are major reasons the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

In Roof’s case, the question is whether preventing him from obtaining a handgun could have stopped him from carrying out the church shooting. While it’s impossible to know for sure what would have happened under such a scenario, the research suggests that gun violence in general can be prevented with more restrictions on firearms. And based on the reporting following the shooting, existing laws, if they were enforced in a more comprehensive way, could have prevented Roof in particular from getting a gun.

The research shows gun control policies can help prevent violence

The research shows tightening existing gun control measures in the US would help address the toll of gun violence: Studies in both Connecticut and Missouri suggested that gun licensing laws in those states helped reduce homicides and suicides.

But as Harvard’s David Hemenway told Dylan Matthews for Vox, it would likely take decades for the mild gun control measures proposed in the US to have a significant impact. “It’s all speculation,” Hemenway said. “I suspect it would take a while (decades) for the US to get down to gun violence levels of other developed countries because a) we have so many guns which are durable, and b) we have a gun culture — we tend to use guns more often in more situations than citizens of other developed countries.”

To have a more immediate impact, then, the US would have to find a way to quickly remove the number of guns in circulation. Other countries have actually done that: In Australia, after a 1996 mass shooting, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people’s guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.

According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers, Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent.

Although it’s hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: “First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”

Still, similar policies would be difficult to pass in America, a nation in which gun culture and ownership are tremendously ingrained — notably in the Second Amendment. And gun owners are backed by a powerful lobby: the National Rifle Association. Combined, these forces have stopped any serious gun legislation from passing at the federal level — although some states have passed new restrictions in the past few years.

But there’s evidence that at least some mild reforms could have helped prevent the Charleston shooting: As the New York Times reported, Roof was supposed to be barred from buying a gun because he previously admitted to illegally possessing drugs. But the FBI examiner who conducted the background check failed to obtain the correct police records, so he never saw the admission.

This is a notorious problem in America’s enforcement of its gun laws: Very frequently, local and state police don’t cooperate closely with the feds, and the FBI is perpetually too understaffed and underresourced to follow up as much as it should. So things fall through.

America could work to change this by beefing up its enforcement of existing gun laws or passing new gun laws and strictly enforcing those. But it hasn’t. And the result is far more tragedies — including, perhaps, the Charleston church shooting.