Dylann Roof is pictured in a self-portrait wearing the flag patches of now-defunct Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, states that were linked to white supremacy.(Photo: U.S. District Court of South Carolina)
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann Roof, potentially confronted with days of testimony from friends and family of the victims he shot in his racially charged massacre at a historically black church, asked the court Thursday to limit the lineup against him.
Roof was found guilty last month of killing nine parishioners June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church here. In the trial's penalty phase, going on now in U.S. District Court, jurors will decide whether the 22-year-old will be put to death or spend life in prison.
He is serving as his own attorney during the sentencing and said he will not offer any defense. After two separate hearings, District Judge Richard Gergel proclaimed him competent enough to proceed.
“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,” his first of three motions on the issue stated. “I also think that victim-impact witness should include only relatives — not friends or co-workers — of the victims. And that victim impact testimony should be limited to a 'quick glimpse' of the victims’ lives.”
The proceeding has taken on the character of a memorial service instead of its intended purpose as a sentencing hearing, David Bruck, standby counsel for Roof, said in court.
In the meantime, Rita Whidbee testified about the kind heart of her best friend, victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.
“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.”Dylann Roof motion, Jan. 5, 2017
Coleman-Singleton, 45, was the matron of honor at her wedding, delivering a horse-drawn carriage and a fairy-tale day to make her feel like a princess. When Whidbee faced divorce and an uncertain financial future, Coleman-Singleton gave her friend a blank check and told her to fill in the amount she needed.
“She would do anything could do make next person’s life as easy as possible,” Whidbee said.
While much of the testimony has illustrated the heart-rending importance of a lost husband, father, wife or mother, some portions have chronicled more routine stretches of life, like childhood memories, favorite foods and nicknames.
Gergel has struggled to find the right balance of victim impact testimony. He has upheld the importance of victim impact statements but also has urged prosecutors to streamline victim testimony.
Gergel warned prosecutors Wednesday that he “will cut you off at some point if it goes on too long” and added the “defense raises a legitimate point that at some point it does become too much.”
The government removed some witnesses in response to that recommendation, said assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson as the defense again raised the issue Thursday. But he also argued the testimony has been appropriate.
“He is the one that chose to kill nine people,” Richardson said of Roof. “He chose to go into a church to do it and he chose to do it to particularly good people.”
In a second motion regarding the abundance of victim impact statements, Roof, with assistance from his lawyers, argued that his death penalty case is being treated differently than other high-profile federal murder cases.
The penalty phase for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, executed following a death sentence conviction, saw 38 victim impact statements, the same that Charleston prosecutors initially proposed. McVeigh was convicted of killing 168 people. Roof is guilty of nine deaths, the motion states.
Roof does not object to the witnesses being heard but said their testimony should come at his formal sentencing, when the jury has already made its life-or-death decision.
In response to a third motion Roof filed on the matter, one that came Thursday afternoon, Roof asked the court to offer more breaks during emotional proceedings that were bringing jurors, officials and courtroom watchers to tears.
Gergel, who offers a morning and an afternoon break in addition to a lunch hour, declined, and chastised much of the motion, one that also raised concerns about video and audio recordings of victims.
“There’s no antiseptic way to do this,” said Gergel, adding that he would be surprised if jurors didn’t become emotional given the loss to families. “I am continually committed to maintain the due process rights of this defendant.”
Among the last to testify Thursday was Daniel Simmons Jr., son of the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., who was the only victim that paramedics took from the church. The 74-year-old did not survive.
Remembered as the backbone of the church, Simmons was the second person Roof shot, gunned down when he moved forward to help Roof’s first victim, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was shot in prayer.
The younger Simmons remembered his father for his love of the church, education and conversation with people who hold different viewpoints, and more lightly, his affinity for a dapper hat.
But the son remained troubled about that night, knowing that his father, who held a concealed carry permit, typically carried a pistol.
“It was hard for me not knowing why he didn’t protect everyone,” the younger Simmons said.
Later when his father’s car was released, the son found it on the front seat.
“I found it,” Simmons told juror, his voice cracking. “Apparently, he took it off before he went to church. It was hard, but it did bring some closure.”
Follow Tonya Maxwell on Twitter: @factsbymax