'Powerful, 'heartbreaking,' 'stomach-churning' - reporter recounts Roof trial

'Powerful, 'heartbreaking,' 'stomach-churning' - reporter recounts Roof trial
A courtroom sketch from the trial. (Source: NBC News)
A courtroom sketch from the trial. (Source: NBC News)

CHARLESTON, SC (WMBF) – WMBF News' Digital Content Producer Brad Dickerson shared a first-hand account of what covering the Dylann Roof Trial, and being in that courtroom day after day, has been like.

Roof, found guilty of 33 federal charges last month for the deaths of nine people at the Mother Emanuel Church in downtown Charleston in June of 2015, is set to return to court Wednesday for the sentencing phase of his trial.

Dickerson was formerly a newspaper courts reporter, so he's been handling digital coverage of the Roof trial from start to finish.

It's an experience, he said, that takes an emotional toll.

The full transcript of Dickerson's interview after the first phase of the Roof trial is below:

I went into this knowing, 'Oh my gosh, I'm covering the Dylann Roof trial. This is a case that has national publicity, it has international publicity, so from a professional standpoint this is a great opportunity and probably the biggest story I will ever cover in my lifetime.

So I went to that: this is a great opportunity and I was excited about it. Then you get there and you start to hear what was happening that night, you hear the stories from the survivors, you see the crime scene photos, and then all of a sudden you think from a personal standpoint it's absolute hell. You know you are seeing violence and just grief on a level that I have never seen before.

It was a challenge to be in a courtroom every day and hear these stories, and you want to be professional and you want to do your job, you want to tell a story that is very important for the people of Charleston, for the people of this nation, but at the same time you also want to be a human being and feel for these people. You know what they went through and this community and what it went through.

One of the survivors, she took the stand first, she was the first witness, and her aunt and her son were two of the victims, and she talks about how she watched her son die, and she said, "I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world." And, you know, you mentally prepare yourself for these things - you're going to hear this, and you're going to see the crime scene photos, but still to hear her say that it was just a punch in the stomach. Just, it was just so emotional beyond what I was expecting.  The judge called a break because the emotions were so high in the court room. The lawyers were crying, the family members were crying, jurors were crying, members of the press were crying.

What amazed me was how, even in their dying moments, they still tried to tell him, "We mean you no harm." And the youngest victim Tawanza Sanders he, he was struck multiple times and he stood injured and said, "You don't have to do this, we mean you no harm," and [Roof] opened fire on him again, but the last photo the prosecution showed during the closing statements was a photo of Tawanza Sanders and his Aunt Suzie Jackson, who was the oldest victim - a close-up of him covered in blood and her lying under a table. And what you saw was his hand reaching up to her - it was powerful to see because these people were just kind, good-natured, caring, good people who wanted to do what God wanted them to, and that was to welcome in a stranger and to make him feel like he was a part of them, their fellowship group. And like I said, he turned out to be the devil, and they had no idea that is who they had invited into that church that night. It was powerful, it was heartbreaking and stomach-churning. 

And barring anything down the road where I am diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's, I will never forget what I saw that week or over those few weeks, and I will never forget what I hear during that sentencing phase. 

This was just the second death penalty case I have covered in my career, and sadly in both cases it involved a young man that just threw his life away.

The first one was a young man named Joshua Lee Altensburger, and in January of 2007 he was 19 years old and during a traffic stop he shot and killed a Florida Highway Patrol Officer. And when I was working for a newspaper down in Florida, when I interviewed for the job, they said I would be covering this story, and it was a death penalty case as well.  He pled guilty the Friday before they were to start the jury selection, and this was in April of 2009, and they still had not had the trial because just like the Dylann Roof case, they were going to have two portions: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. And they still had to pick a jury and still had to go through the motions and present evidence and so they did and it lasted four days and they came back and the jurors decided to give him the death penalty.

I still keep tabs on this case, and every couple of months I check to see what's happening with the appeals process, because much like the Dylann Roof case I became emotionally invested in the case. I would drive an hour every day to the court house and an hour back. 

This was a whole different animal.  Again, from a professional standpoint, to just take a part in this was very rewarding, and I probably will never see a story of this magnitude again, barring God forbid another 9/11-type disaster.

It was interesting being on the road for several weeks and living out of a suitcase for several weeks, and you want find ways to decompress after hearing all this because it's not pleasant to listen to at all, and you had to find ways to shake it off whether you go for a run, eat a ridiculous amount of food, cut up with some of the other members of the media panel, or go watch something ridiculously funny on TV, and then you get up the next day and go listen to it all again and by the end of the day you are brow beaten.

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