CHARLESTON, S.C. (RNS) The relatives and friends of the nine people murdered on June 17, 2015 are facing a second New Year’s without their loved ones.
The strength and dignity the bereaved have displayed during the killer’s trial is an extension of the goodness of those who died at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And we all must keep telling their stories — to remind us of who they were and all that we could be.
As a Charlestonian, I was privileged to witness their strength, inside and outside the courtroom, since Dylann Roof went on a murderous rampage at one of the most historic churches in the nation on June 17, 2015.
Those who will long bear unfathomable grief over those lost in the massacre at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel did breathe a collective sigh of relief recently. Ten days before Christmas, the jury came to a rapid decision in the federal trial against Roof, found guilty of all 33 counts of hate crimes, obstructing religion and firearms violations.
The timing of this trial, however, could not have been worse: sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And the final jury selection and opening statements occurred on Dec. 7, two days after a mistrial was declared in the trial of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, accused of murdering unarmed African-American Walter Scott in April 2015.
That ruling was disheartening and there will be another trial, but the tension and disappointment in the air that cold foggy in early December was palpable as the Emanuel families made their way to the federal courthouse on Broad Street in downtown Charleston. Media trucks lined the adjoining streets, a familiar site to these individuals whose private grief became immediately public in the aftermath of the church shooting.
Despite their pain and exhaustion, each day they arrived at the courtroom — dressed in church clothes — beloved sons, daughters and grandchildren, parents, widows, widowers and friends. Sitting not far away was Roof, who barely looked up during the days of detailed testimony.
Together, the friends and family members endured days of forensic evidence, autopsy and coroner’s reports, and video footage and testimony of first responders, as well as every detail in Roof’s hate-filled racist path to Mother Emanuel — from his lengthy taped confession, to his journals and typed manifesto, photographs he took of himself in new Nazi white supremacist regalia and video footage of him shooting the Glock .45-caliber handgun that would kill their loved ones.
There were days when everyone cried, and there was occasional laughter. The display of bravery was extraordinary; when the gruesome crime scene photos were exhibited on TV screens directly in front of them, Judge Richard M. Gergel reminded them that there was no shame in removing themselves from the courtroom.
All but one remained.
Nowhere was this strength more apparent than in the words of survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, whose moving testimony served as bookends for the prosecution.
Sanders, the first witness to testify in the trial, described in graphic detail how events unfolded on the night of June 17. Once Roof started shooting, she hid underneath a table covering her 11-year-old granddaughter with her body, holding on so hard she was afraid she would smother the child. Later that afternoon, first responders’ testimony and video footage depicted a child running around a table clearly in shock when they first came upon the crime scene.
Sanders told jurors that she rubbed her leg in a pool of blood on the floor so she would appear dead as she and her granddaughter lay between her gravely wounded son Tywanza and her 87-year-old aunt Susie Jackson, who died after Roof shot her at least 10 times, more than any other victim. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom when Sanders talked about watching Tywanza die in front of her as he reached for his Aunt Susie. “I watched my son come in (to) this world and I watched my son leave this world.”
For the remainder of the trial she and her husband, Tyrone, sat in the front row every day. During closing arguments, prosecutor Nathan Williams described Tywanza’s heroic actions — the last acts of his life when he tried to stop Roof and save others. Williams talked about the Rev. Daniel Simmons, who ran toward the gunfire trying to save the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and the courage of survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard.
“There is no bravery in this defendant,” Williams stated, “but there is bravery in this case.”
The crime scene photos show Tywanza’s hand outstretched toward his aunt — a final gesture of compassion that led his mother to refer to him as her hero.
Williams’ closing statements followed Sheppard, a 72-year-old witness and survivor and the last person to take the stand. As the prosecution showed photos of each of the Emanuel Nine she told little stories about them and told the jury their nicknames, making clear the close friendships and love that bound those gathered for Bible study on that June 17.
The Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor could “sing like an angel,” Miss Susie was “sweet, sweet, sweet.” Myra Thompson was “One of the kindest people I know.” Rev. Simmons was nicknamed “Dapper Dan.” She referred to Rev. Pinckney as a “gentle giant.”
Sheppard went on to describe how she hid under a table and saw Roof’s boots and the gun casings fall to the floor after he fired. Roof heard her praying; while pointing his .45-caliber Glock at her, he told her to shut up and asked if he had shot her yet. When she said no, he told her he would let her live so she could tell the story of what she had witnessed. He walked away from her and she grabbed Ethel Lance’s cell phone and dialed 911. The tape of the call was played as evidence.
The terror in Sheppard’s voice moved everyone who heard her tell the operator where she was and what had transpired in the church basement. Roof was still in the room; at one point, she cries out, “He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming.” Throughout the call, Sheppard continues to pray out loud. When she slowly walked off the witness stand almost everyone in the courtroom stood to honor her.
At every opportunity, the prosecution found ways to remind the jury of the lives of the victims, and their sheer goodness, both with descriptions and photographs. “These nine good people,” Williams stated, were greater than Roof’s message of hate.
The youngest, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders was a recent college graduate. He worked as a barber and entrepreneur and wrote and performed his own poetry.
Thompson had been a teacher and later a minister.
The Rev. Sharonda Colemen-Singleton was a track coach.
Ethel Lance was a custodian who also took care of her church building.
Mother of four daughters, Doctor worked as a college admissions coordinator.
Cynthia Graham Hurd was a long-serving public and college librarian and she also served on the city housing authority.
Simmons was a Vietnam veteran.
Susie Jackson, a matriarch at Mother Emanuel, helped raise dozens of children in her family.
The father of two young daughters, Pinckney was the youngest person to ever be elected to the South Carolina Senate.
Together, they were people whose lives served their church and God.
In the aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting, Pinckney opened services at Mother Emanuel with a prayer that reminded everyone that Emanuel means “God with us.” Inviting God to “make Emanuels out of all of us,” he said. “Only love can conquer hate.”
It takes tremendous strength to let love win, but this is what Simmons’ granddaughter Alana Simmons told Dylann Roof at his bond hearing on June 19, 2015, just two days after Roof had killed her grandfather. Sitting in the back row of the courtroom throughout the trial, the elegant and often ebullient woman was still — her face a mix of strength and defiance.
Others who offered words of forgiveness at the bond hearing were also present for the trial. The Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife, Myra, led the Bible study at Emanuel Church that tragic evening two summers ago, sat a few rows back. Occasionally, he wiped tears away. Three days later, at Holy Trinity Church, he recited before his congregation the words of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
On the last day of the trial, he and the other family members and friends held hands and waited for the verdict. Soon many of them erupted in smiles; others openly wept. Grateful for some closure on the matter, most felt relief.
Former North Carolina state Sen. Malcolm Graham, brother of slain librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd, called the verdicts “bittersweet.” How could it feel any other way? Now, as they face the start of the new year, they continue to pray and gather strength for the sentencing phase of the trial starting on Jan. 3.
(Marjory Wentworth is South Carolina’s poet laureate, and co-author of “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel”)