Gil Truesdale would like to meet “the heinous murderer” responsible for the Charleston church massacre – to let him know why he signed his death warrant.
Five years ago, Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and joined parishioners for 40 minutes of Bible study before gunning down nine of them. He reloaded seven times. He hoped to start a race war, he’d later confess to police.
At Roof’s federal trial in 2016, Truesdale served as jury foreman, declaring “guilty” to each of the 33 counts read in court, 18 of them carrying the death penalty. On January 10, 2017, he delivered the jury’s recommendation that Roof be executed by lethal injection, which a judge accepted the next day. Roof has appealed his conviction and death sentence.
While the outrage over Roof’s hate-fueled slayings sparked change – especially when it came to Confederate monuments and flags – Truesdale was under no illusion the violence would end with Roof’s death sentence, he said.
“It was more haunting to me than anything knowing that this probably wasn’t the end,” he said at a moment when the nation again is grappling with systemic racism. “As unfortunate as it is, most of the people who do this kind of stuff, other than being mentally ill, just want to get attention.”
For Truesdale and fellow jurors, simmering national protests over the continued unjust killings of black people have left them, he said, “damned disgusted.”
Meeting a mass murderer
One year after Roof’s sentencing, on the morning of January 10, 2018, Truesdale filled out the forms required to visit an inmate at United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, where Roof sits on death row. His request was denied, he said. He tried twice more but never got a response.
“I’d like to let him meet me, and I would like very much to meet him,” the 55-year-old said. “It would be good for me personally for a little bit of closure – not that I deserve closure.”
You can’t know what it’s like to sign off on another man’s death until you’re charged with doing it, he said. It bothers him when people say he shouldn’t feel bad because Roof deserves to die.
Whatever you think of the 26-year-old white supremacist, he is someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s grandkid, said Truesdale, who has two daughters and five grandchildren. He can’t imagine being the father of a “wicked murderer” and feels for Roof’s family, he said.
“Until you’re the guy putting the needle in his arm, you don’t have the right to say that. … Until you’re the one handing the judge the paper with your name on it, saying, ‘This guy is done,’” he paused, searching for the words, “it’s something different.”
So, what would he say if his request to sit down with Roof were granted?
“It’s not in my physical being to forgive him, but I want to let him know why it was done,” Truesdale said.
Why it was done
There was minimal hesitation among the jurors deciding the young murderer’s fate, Truesdale said. Roof was proud of his racism. He flaunted it. Given a chance to plead for forgiveness, he instead said, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still do feel like I had to do it.”
Then there was Susie Jackson. What would possess a man, Truesdale asked, to fire 11 bullets into an 87-year-old woman?
“There is no remorse,” he said. “It was a very simple process.”
Truesdale also wants answers – something he could take back to victims’ relatives who didn’t get a chance to communicate to Roof the depth of their loss – though he doubts the killer would provide any.
“He’s going to roll his eyes like he did the entire (trial),” he said.
While Truesdale doesn’t take ordering Roof’s execution lightly, it doesn’t haunt him, either. He has often wondered if it would one day.
“I’m always sitting there wondering: At some point, are you going to look at this like something different should have been done?” he said, but he always concludes, “It was done exactly how it should’ve been done.”
‘I made 17 siblings’
Aside from work and family, Truesdale has spent time in the last five years speaking at events and working with nonprofits that promote racial understanding and advocate for domestic violence survivors. He chats regularly with victims’ relatives, Mother Emanuel pastor the Rev. Eric Manning, and Jennifer Berry Hawes, who wrote a book on the massacre’s aftermath.
He’s met heroes and survivors from other mass shootings, including police officers who responded last year in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the 2018 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
Yet among his most cherished takeaway from the days he spent in the jury box are the bonds he forged with fellow jurors. He speaks with one of them at least weekly. They’re united by more than friendship. They send cards when babies are born and when parents are ill.
“I made 17 siblings. It’s beyond friends,” Truesdale, an only child, said.
The 18 jurors – 12 who sat on the panel and six alternates – all live within 100 miles of Charleston and meet at least once a year, but they aim for two or three get-togethers annually. It might be for breakfast or a field trip. The meetups usually begin with fist pumps, and hugs and kisses.
“We don’t talk about the trial. That was our only rule,” Truesdale said.
A month after US Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Roof to death, the group visited Mother Emanuel – not as tourists but as parishioners.
As The Post and Courier in Charleston reported of the visit, “They wanted to see the church as a house of worship, not a tomb.”
‘It was bad enough then’
The jurors sometimes struggle to process the riots and protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans. It’s been a “tough couple months,” Truesdale said, and they’re checking on each other regularly to see how they’re all coping.
If someone feels passionately about something, that person leads the conversation. There are no diatribes.
“It’s just nice to be able to listen sometimes,” Truesdale said.
The country is seeing too many black people killed over nothing, he said, and he and the other jurors find themselves “damned disgusted with the process.”
In their conversations, they’ve complained variously about the innocent people being hurt and killed, the agitators “poking people with sticks and leaving the scene,” the small businesses suffering so much of the riots’ destruction and how poorly governments are handling the outrage.
“We’ve gone through this way too much here lately,” he said. “It was bad enough then, but now with all this, it sort of hits you in a different place.”
Truesdale wants an end to the violence, but there are “too many crazies,” he said, and he’s afraid it will only continue.
It’s not enough, he finds, for people to say they support Black Lives Matter. There’s so much virtue signaling today, he wants to know why they feel black lives matter – and he asks them.
“I need to understand why they think that,” he said. “Anybody can put a bumper sticker on a car or wear a hat or T-shirt.”
The answer he wants to hear?
“Because they’re abused. They as a people, they as a race, they’ve been abused. If you can’t answer why, then you’re really not committed to the process, in my opinion.”