CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The families shattered when a gunman entered Emanuel AME Church and fired 77 shots at the end of Bible study get one last chance to confront convicted killer Dylann Roof on Wednesday before he heads off to death row as a federal judge verifies the jury's death sentence.
The willingness of some of the relatives of the nine people killed in the massacre to forgive dominated the news in the days after the June 17, 2015, killings. But that didn't mean they felt his life should be spared. And there are others who said forgiveness is still a work in progress.
Melvin Graham said he will forever grieve the death of his sister Cynthia Hurd. He told reporters after a jury recommended Roof receive the death sentence Tuesday that he has struggled because he feels like it isn't quite right to see someone ordered to die, but he also knows Roof must be punished as severely as possible for what he did on Earth.
"It's hard to say a person should live when nine others died," Graham said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel was set to verify the jury's sentence at Wednesday's hearing. The hearing will also give relatives of those killed their only chance to speak to Roof and the court directly, without having to answer specific questions.
And while forgiveness has been offered from one side, Roof has shown no remorse for the slaughter during weeks in court. He had a final chance to ask the jury to spare his life Tuesday.
"I still feel like I had to do it," the 22-year-old avowed white supremacist told the jury instead.
Roof told FBI agents when they arrested him that he wanted the shootings to bring back segregation or perhaps start a race war. Instead, the slayings had a unifying effect as South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its Statehouse for the first time in more than 50 years. Other states followed suit, taking down Confederate banners and monuments. Roof had posed with the flag in photos.
Roof specifically selected Emanuel AME Church, the South's oldest black church, to carry out the cold, calculated slaughter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said.
The gunman sat with the Bible study group for about 45 minutes. During the final prayer — when everyone's eyes were closed — he started firing. He stood over some of the fallen victims, shooting them again as they lay on the floor, Richardson said.
"They welcomed a 13th person that night ... with a kind word, a Bible, a handout and a chair," Richardson said during his closing argument. "He had come with a hateful heart and a Glock .45."
The jury convicted Roof last month of all 33 federal charges he faced, including hate crimes. He never explained his actions to jurors, saying only that "anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason for it."
Roof insisted he was not mentally ill and did not call any witnesses or present any evidence.
After he was sentenced, Roof asked a judge to appoint him new attorneys, but the judge said he was not inclined to do so because they had performed "admirably."
"We are sorry that, despite our best efforts, the legal proceedings have shed so little light on the reasons for this tragedy," the attorneys said in a veiled reference to the mental health issues they wanted to present.
Felicia Sanders survived the shooting. Roof spared her after hearing her pray loudly, saying she could go tell the rest of the world why he slaughtered black people in a church. She offered forgiveness at Roof's bond hearing, but has since not said if she wanted him to get life in prison without parole or death. Her aunt and son died.
Sanders husband, Tyrone, acknowledged his own struggle between earthly and eternal justice after Roof was found guilty of hate crimes and obstruction of religion charges in December.
"My thoughts were if I could get to him, what would I do," Tyrone Sanders said. "But the Lord kept me from charging."
Associated Press writer Alex Sanz contributed to this report.