CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann Roof wrote in a court filing unsealed Thursday that it was “not fair” for prosecutors to present such extensive testimony about the effect of his church shooting here on victims’ family members, arguing – because he was not presenting any evidence – that it would virtually assure a death sentence.
“If I don’t present any mitigation evidence, the victim-impact evidence will take over the whole sentencing trial and guarantee that I get the death penalty,” Roof wrote.
The filing was unsealed on the second day of the penalty phase in Roof’s trial, as prosecutors elicited emotional stories from the loved ones of those slain at Charleston’s historical Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Aside from Roof’s opening statement, the motion marked Roof’s first substantive participation in the penalty phase of proceedings. He has mostly sat silent, staring straight ahead and declining to question any witnesses himself.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ultimately did not impose any limits on testimony, though he warned prosecutors he was worried about the issue. “I’m concerned both about the number of witnesses and the length of their testimony and the length collectively of their testimony, and I want you to revisit your strategy here, because at some point I’m going to cut you off if it gets too long,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson insisted the government was acting appropriately.
“It is also, I think, important that the government and these individuals are allowed to tell the stories of their loved ones,” he said.
Roof, 22, was convicted last month of federal hate crimes for killing nine people in a June 2015 rampage at the Mother Emanuel church, and jurors have only two options for his sentence: life in prison or death. He has said the massacre was racially motivated, and he wrote six weeks after the crime in a jailhouse journal that he did not regret it.
“I am not sorry,” Roof wrote in the journal. “I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
To persuade jurors to impose the ultimate punishment, prosecutors must show the aggravating factors in the case – Roof’s racial motivation, his lack of remorse and the effect his crime had on the victims and their families – outweigh the mitigating evidence. They have questioned victims’ loved ones at length, often bantering with the witnesses and drawing laughs from those in the courtroom.
Denise Quarles, victim Myra Thompson’s daughter, spoke Thursday of how her mom was her confidante and role model who told her in a regular check-in not long before the shooting: “I just want you to know, if I never told you before, that I’m proud of you.”
“She taught me what being a woman is, how to be a mom, how to be a grandparent, how to be a friend, how to treat people,” Quarles saidas she started to cry.
Rita Whidbee, a longtime friend of victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, told jurors how Coleman-Singleton planned her wedding based on the simple instruction, “I want to be a princess,” and perfected every detail down to the horse-drawn carriage. When it came time for the honeymoon, Whidbee said, Coleman-Singleton tagged along.
“Sharonda was everything any friend could ever want,” Whidbee said.
Bethane Middleton, the sister of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor, said of her sibling: “She protected me, and she guided me.”
Roof is representing himself at the trial, having fired his attorneys before the penalty phase began. He said in an opening statement he did so because he did not want them to offer evidence that he had psychological problems, and he insisted he had none.
“The point is that I’m not going to lie to you, either by myself or through anyone else,” Roof said.
Roof raised a few oral objections to pieces of evidence in court, at one point referring to his written motion. The motion – which David Bruck, Roof’s standby attorney, said he helped draft – was typed, and it asked the judge to limit the number of victim-impact witnesses that can be called and the way they can be questioned.
“Allowing so much of this testimony violates due process and the Eighth Amendment, and should not be allowed,” Roof wrote. “The prosecution can call more victim witnesses at my formal sentencing, once the jury has already decided on what sentence I should get, but in front of the jury, there should be some limit on the number and types of victim witnesses who can testify to help the government get a death sentence.”
Bruck told the judge that he agreed with Roof’s request and asked that he be allowed to object on Roof’s behalf. Gergel rejected that request, too, noting that Roof had disregarded his earlier warning not to fire his lawyers.
Prosecutors have indicated that they could call as many as 38 witnesses, though Richardson said Thursday the final figure will probably be less. Although Roof has not presented any evidence, Gergel told jurors they could consider his confession in the case, his offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence and the possibility that he could change as factors in favor of a life sentence.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Matt Zapotosky