Malcolm Graham plans to spend the next several days – even weeks or months – sitting a few feet to the right of the man accused of gunning down his sister and eight others because they were black.
The trial of Dylann Storm Roof, charged with the June 17, 2015, murders at Emanuel AME Zion Church, begins Wednesday in Charleston. Graham, a former state senator from Charlotte, and several of his brothers and sisters will be in the small federal courtroom in South Carolina’s historic port city when the 22-year-old Roof faces a jury.
The avowed white supremacist is charged with 33 hate crimes. If convicted, he could be put to death.
Roof had been scheduled to defend himself. But in a surprise move over the weekend, he sent U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel a message asking that his attorneys be reinstated to handle the guilt or innocence portion of the trial. Roof told the judge that he would take over his defense in the penalty phase, when the jury could be choosing between life imprisonment or death.
One of shooting victims was Cynthia Hurd, Graham’s big sister and a Charleston librarian. He says his obligation to attend the trial extends far beyond his family.
“I’m hoping for justice for my sister and justice for all,” he said. “Obviously the family and friends of the victims and the community will be revisiting the events of a year and half ago. That will be tough. But I believe that it’s necessary pain. We have an obligation to the victims and the people of Charleston to put hate, racism and discrimination on trial.”
He said he is happy that the death penalty for Roof is in play – “not out of malice or fear” but because of the historic significance of the crime. And he said the fact that the trial will be held in his native Charleston, which for more than two centuries served as the nation’s portal for the slave trade, adds context to the case.
This week, the city’s racial past and present intersected at Broad and Meeting streets. Across the street from the federal courthouse on Monday, a judge in the state murder trial of a former white North Charleston police officer declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict. Video shot by a witness showed Officer Michael Slager firing five shots into the back of Walter Scott after the unarmed black man fled a traffic stop. Slager will be retried with a new jury at a later date.
To Graham, both trials are “visible evidence that racism and discrimination are alive and well.”
“You know what happened in Emanuel. That was a crime against a race of people, a crime against the Christian church, and a crime against humanity,” he says. “In the Slager trial … to shoot an unarmed man running away, I don’t know what you call it other than (racism).”
Hurd, the church’s pastor and the seven other church members died in the basement of “Mother Emanuel” after a prayer meeting. Roof, according to witnesses, was invited to attend after he showed up. After the prayers ended, Roof pulled a gun, survivors later said.
“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” he reportedly said. “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.”
He was captured in Shelby the next day.
On Tuesday, the court released a race and gender breakdown of the 67 persons from which Roof’s 12 jurors and six alternates will be selected. The pool is 75 percent white and 22 percent African-American; 3 percent are Latino. Women outnumber men 70 percent to 30 percent.
Twice last month as the pool was being picked, Graham, 53, spent hours sitting near Roof in court. He said he tried not to look at the defendant.
“In a weird type of way, I just ignore him,” Graham said. “My only focus is what happens on the right side of the courtroom. That’s where the prosecutors and the family members sit.”
On the question of forgiving Roof, Graham says he still has not asked for it from the families of his victims.
“He has doubled-down on hatred in my perspective,” he says. “To say I forgive … I’m not sure there is a way to forgive hatred and discrimination and racism. I’m not there, and I probably can never get there.”
He has already started a journal and expects to attend the trial through the rest of the week. The case could take several months. Graham plans to witness as much of it as he can. And he has agreed to testify during the penalty phase should prosecutors call him as a witness.
“I’m prepared for the journey. I believe it’s a journey we’re compelled to take,” he said. “While it may be hard along the way, nothing can be as hard as being in the church that night.”