Dylann Roof showed "tremendous cowardice" and "tremendous hatred" when he gunned down nine helpless worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church last year, the prosecution said Thursday in its closing arguments in Roof's federal death penalty trial.
Roof, 22, who is white, is accused of fatally shooting nine black parishioners during a Bible study at the predominantly black Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. He allegedly entered the church armed and "with the intent of killing African-Americans engaged in the exercise of their religious beliefs," according to the federal indictment against him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams began the prosecution's closing arguments by describing church as a sanctuary, "a place of safety, fellowship and welcoming." Williams said hatred doesn't have a place in such a venue.
Nonetheless, Roof felt hatred and targeted the church, Williams said. "It was a cold and calculated hatred that had been developing for months ... that had been seeking out the most vulnerable people to target," Williams said, according to local ABC affiliate WCIV. "He sat there with them, and he waited until they were at their most vulnerable."
Williams continued, "When they stood to pray, when they had their eyes closed ... in those actions we see exactly who this defendant is ... a man whose actions show him to be a man of tremendous cowardice, shooting them when their eyes were closed, shooting them when they were on the ground."
Williams said that Roof believes black people are a problem for America and that he thinks society should go back to a time when slavery was allowed, "one of the most dismal and shameful in this country's history," WCIV reported.
"[He believes] the color of a person's skin makes them less than human," said Williams.
Williams pointed to Roof's manifesto, in which he said Roof identified himself as the one who had to act. "We've seen in these writings a racist retribution," said Williams. "[Roof] literally wants there to be a race war."
Next, Williams spoke about the steps Roof took to prepare for his deadly rampage. Roof worked to find "the most vulnerable people to attack," Williams said, saying Roof made several trips to Charleston, scouting the church. Roof considered a black festival but decided against it because of its security, Williams said. So instead he turned to a church, Williams said, and began stockpiling ammunition.
On June 17, Roof drove to the church, taking a route he had practiced, Williams said. The church he chose, Emanuel AME, was at the top of a list of possible targets, Williams said.
"That tells you the depth, the vastness of his hatred," Williams said.
He then asked how someone could shoot a person on the ground. "The answer, in part, is because he thinks they're less than human," Williams said, WCIV reported.
The worst part of Roof's hatred, Williams said, is that he carried out his attack in a church. Roof drove for 90 minutes to Charleston, then sat outside Emanuel AME for 28 minutes before going inside, Williams said. Roof was "planning and preparing for what he was about to do," Williams said. Then Roof loaded his gun and went inside, Williams said.
For 40 minutes, Roof sat with his victims, "waiting for the chance to kill them" before opening fire, Williams said. "For every person he killed, he must be held accountable."
Williams then pointed out that each victim was shot repeatedly. He commended the bravery of those who faced Roof as he fired, including victim Tywanza Sanders, who tried to draw Roof's attention away from the other people in the church, Williams said.
During his video "confession," Roof laughed over and over, Williams said.
"This defendant's hatred was overwhelming," Williams said.
But Roof's nine victims triumphed over his hatred, Williams continued. "[Roof] thought it would spread his message of hate, but that message was stopped by their goodness ... He chose the wrong good people."
He added, "That church was a sanctuary because these good people created a sanctuary ... And this defendant's hatred has no place in that sanctuary."
Williams concluded by asking the jury to find Roof guilty of every count.
Attorney David Bruck spoke next, saying in the defense's closing arguments that the answer is simple when it comes to the issue of what happened and who did it.
He asked the jury to consider the why of this case and understand what was going on in Roof's head.
Bruck called Roof a boy with an "obsession" and described the repeated trips to Charleston as "ritualistic."
"He had nowhere to go," said Bruck. "Just a car full of dirty stuff, like he'd been living there."
Bruck pointed to the fact that Roof told the FBI that he had saved his last bullets for himself. Bruck said that this indicates Roof wasn't going to kill other people; instead, he had decided to kill himself, Bruck said.
He appeared to have no friends, Bruck said. "He didn't get this from anyone else that he knew," Bruck said.
Bruck described Roof as a lonely dropout reading things online in his room. Bruck brought up the Trayvon Martin case, which Roof cited in his manifesto as what piqued his interest.
Bruck said Roof proceeded to find an explanation for every bad thing that had happened and placed the blame at the feet of black people.
"He is simply regurgitating," Bruck said, "bits and pieces of stuff that he has downloaded into his brain from the internet."
Bruck said Roof never adequately explained why he carried out his deadly rampage. "He repeats 10 times in confession, 'I had to do it,'" he said.
Bruck pointed to Roof's warped perception of reality, saying Roof appeared shocked to learn in his interview with the FBI he had killed nine people. "There is something wrong with his perception," Bruck said.
Bruck noted various peculiarities in Roof's behavior, such as having hundreds of pictures of his cat.
He then asked the jury to consider the senselessness of the crime and how illogical it was. He told the jury to question whether there's more to the story.
Bruck concluded by asking the jury to approach the case with the same grace that survivor Polly Sheppard displayed when she took the stand.
In response, prosecutor Stephen Curran said that "none of what Mr. Bruck just told you comes close to undermining what that man [Roof] did."
Curran said Roof was 21 when he carried out the attack, old enough to understand what he did.
Curran continued, "He did act alone. No one forced him do this. No one made him do it. His choices, his decisions, his actions."
Curran told the jury to look at the "confession" video, saying what's seen is not someone who's "delusional."
The answers to why Roof carried out this attack are in the evidence, Curran said. The reason is racism, he said.
"There are still people who will kill, simply because of the color of someone's skin," Curran said.
For Roof, race wasn't a complicated issue, said Curran. Roof believed African-Americans are lesser people, said Curran. He lamented that white people are no longer superior, Curran said.
"Don't be distracted by the defense counsel's argument," Curran said. "It's not that complicated. He told us why."
With that, closing arguments concluded.
The jury was read the charges and was sent to deliberate just after 1 p.m.
The 33 federal counts against Roof include hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of exercise of religion resulting in death. If convicted, Roof faces the death penalty.
Roof has pleaded not guilty.
He also faces a state trial, set for early next year, in which he may also face the death penalty.