Charleston Residents Respond To Church Shooter's Death Penalty Sentence

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 6:26 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit


Today, a judge in South Carolina formally sentenced Dylann Roof to death for the Charleston church shootings. In 2015, Roof went into a predominantly black church and murdered nine black worshipers as they prayed with their eyes closed.

The killings happened just a few months after a white police officer in North Charleston was recorded on a cellphone video shooting and killing a black man from behind. Now, those incidents have left an indelible mark on a place with a long history of racial oppression, as South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin reports.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: In federal court today, dozens of family members and friends of the nine victims spent hours talking to Dylann Roof about how his killings have affected them. Many of those speaking repeated their forgiveness, and others expressed anger. The whole time, the defendant stared blankly ahead, not making eye contact and saying little, as he has most of the trial. Outside the courthouse, church bells rang.


OLGIN: It has been a year and a half since the racially motivated shootings. Roof wrote he chose Charleston because of its history as the capital of slave trade. He picked the Emanuel AME Church because of its connection to the past.

The church was burned to the ground in 1822 after one of its founders was caught planning a slave rebellion. Roof said he hoped the shootings would start a race war. That didn't happen. In fact, the city came together.

LOUIS SMITH: After this original tragedy, we had a come-to-Jesus moment, if you will, on the bridge.

OLGIN: Sixty-four-year-old Louis Smith (ph) is referring to the bridge that connects Charleston to neighboring Mount Pleasant.

SMITH: I think we had about 14,000, 15,000 people out on the bridge holding hands. I think six months later, all that has been forgotten.

OLGIN: It's been a difficult time for Charleston. Smith says he's tired of the "Kumbaya" moments without more meaningful change for black people like him.

SMITH: And it seems like every time we get together for, oh, I love you; you love me; let's get together and kiss each other - and then after that, we still see some of the major problems. There's a racial divide here.

OLGIN: Smith says the divide still exists in housing, education, policing and in everyday life. Now that Roof's federal trial is over, Smith says the death sentence provides some closure.

Seventy-four-year-old James Brown is a black man from Charleston. He says he's less focused on the killer's punishment and more concerned about the victims and their families. He was moved by people who traveled to the city to show sympathy for the families and the victims.

JAMES BROWN: The races have come closer, genuinely closer. So what he intended to happen did not happen. In fact, it was just the reverse, and I'm happy of that.

OLGIN: Many of the victims' relatives told Roof in court today that his mission to agitate race relations not only failed, but his actions had the opposite effect. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO FEET SONG, "YOU'RE SO COLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.