Events testing calls for forgiveness
Roof doesn’t want mental health mulled
The victims’ families spoke words of forgiveness in Charleston, S.C., after nine black people were massacred in a historic church by Dylann Roof, a white man who harbored dreams of launching a race war. The relatives were held up as examples of grace amid horror, and the city stayed calm.
Now, Roof has been convicted in a federal trial, bringing relief tempered by uncertainty over whether he will get the death penalty for his crimes — and whether wanting to see Roof pay with his life is at odds with the call to forgive.
Roof’s guilty verdict came less than two weeks after a jury deadlocked in the case of Michael Slager, a white ex-police officer charged with fatally shooting Walter Scott, a black man, as Scott tried to flee an April 2015 traffic stop. The sentencing phase of his trial is scheduled for next month.
The proximity of the cases — tried in courthouses across the street from each other — left Charleston minister Kylon Middleton unsure about where justice actually dwells.
Middleton counted the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Clementa Pinckney, as his closest friend. Middleton sat in the courtroom daily, from the start of jury selection until Roof’s verdict was rendered, mourning his friend and wrestling with forgiveness as he watched a trial with an outcome that felt especially uncertain.
“You can’t assume people are going to do the right thing,” said Middleton, pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Some people, based on race or bias, ... will never go against someone of the same race.”
After the Slager mistrial, nothing is a foregone conclusion — even with an abundance of evidence, said Herb Frazier, co-author of a book about the June 2015 Emanuel church shootings that left nine worshipers dead. They were shot by Roof after he was welcomed into their weekly Bible study.
“A lot of this is unsettling emotionally, and there seems to be no resolution to anything,” Frazier said.
Roof was convicted Thursday after more than a week of often emotional testimony that included survivors’ accounts of the killings. At his bond hearing last year, several relatives of Roof ’s victims said they forgave him and asked for God’s grace on his soul. The gestures of compassion were praised as a remarkable response to overwhelming grief and tragedy, and held forth as a model for the country.
Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza was killed by Roof as he attempted to shield a church elder, has been forced to grapple personally with the question. She told Roof at his bond hearing last summer, “May God have mercy on you.”
One of two adult survivors of the shooting, Sanders was the first prosecution witness in Roof ’s trial. During the trial, Sanders called him “evil, evil, evil” and said he “should rot in hell.”
Middleton said the families’ impulse to forgive may have been more kneejerk than genuine emotion resulting from a process of contemplation.
“I don’t think they had time to absorb the fact that their loved ones were heinously murdered,” Middleton said. “The country automatically expected us to be forgiving, causing the national perception of the wonderful people of Charleston.”
The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, is still trying to process the Charleston shootings and the notion of forgiveness. After the Slager decision, Tyler was discouraged that “400 years later, we’re still in the same place, with many people feeling like black people don’t belong here.”
“Repeatedly, black people in America have shown the willingness to forgive, but too many refuse to meet us there,” Tyler said. “The rest of the country looked at that moment and said, ‘This is wonderful,’ thinking (blacks) have forgiven white people for all of the wrongs that have happened in America.”
Activist Bree Newsome — who made headlines last year when she scaled a flagpole at South Carolina’s capitol and pulled down the Confederate flag after the Emanuel shootings — placed the Slager case on a continuum of injustices against black people. Newsome said her faith was moved by the families of the shooting victims, but she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the notion of forgiveness around black death.
columbia, s.c. » Dylann Roof doesn’t want jurors to consider his mental health when they decide next month whether he should face the death penalty for killing nine black Charleston church worshippers, according to a handwritten motion he filed late Friday.
Roof ’s decision to not call mental health experts to testify isn’t too much of a surprise. In his hate-filled, racist journal read to the jury during his trial, Roof said he doesn’t believe in psychology.
“It is a Jewish invention and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t,” Roof wrote.
Roof, 22, is acting as his own lawyer during the penalty phase of his trial, which starts Jan. 3.
The same jury that convicted him Thursday on 33 charges, including hate crime and obstruction of religion, will decide if Roof is sentenced to life in prison without parole or death.
In his handwritten note, he said: “I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence.”
Roof’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to stop him from being his own lawyer, saying he was a high school dropout and that they feared Roof fired them because he was afraid the attorneys would present evidence that would embarrass him and his family when trying to save his life.
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