When nine black churchgoers in Charleston were massacred by a white man with Confederate sympathies the city stayed calm as the victims’ families offered examples of grace and forgiveness amid the horror.

Now, church shooting suspect Dylann Roof has been convicted in a federal death penalty trial — but some say a continuing parade of killings of black people feels at odds with the call to forgive.

Roof’s guilty verdict came weeks after a deadlocked jury was unable to unanimously convict Michael Slager, a white ex-police officer, for shooting Walter Scott in the back as he fled during an April 2015 traffic stop. Scott’s death was one of many shootings by police of unarmed black men that have sparked a national protest movement. Such cases have stoked a longing for justice among black Americans looking for someone to be held accountable when one of their own is slain – a rarity in the past few years of deaths.

The proximity of the cases – literally tried across the street from each other – left the Rev. Kylon Middleton unsure about what Roof’s fate would be. Middleton, pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, counted the slain pastor of Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church as his closest friend. He sat in the courtroom daily, from the start of jury selection until the verdict.

“You can’t assume people are going to do the right thing,” Middleton said. “Some people, based on race or bias … will never go against someone of the same race.”

Much more predictable, Middleton said, is society’s expectation of forgiveness – especially from black Americans. He said he is still wrestling with the notion as he mourns his friend and supports his wife and children, left without a husband and a father because he was killed out of hate.

After the Slager mistrial, nothing is a foregone conclusion – even with an abundance of evidence, said Herb Frazier, co-author of a book about the shootings that left nine worshipers dead in June 2015. They were shot by Roof after he was welcomed into their weekly Bible study.

“A lot of this is unsettling emotionally, and there seems to be no resolution to anything,” Frazier said.

Roof was convicted Thursday after more than a week of often emotional testimony that included survivors’ accounts of the killings.

At Roof’s bond hearing last June, several relatives of his victims told Roof they forgave him and asked for God’s grace on his soul. The gestures of compassion were praised as a remarkable response to overwhelming grief and tragedy, and held forth as a model for the country.

Felecia Sanders, whose son Tywanza was killed by Roof as he attempted to shield a church elder, has been forced to grapple personally with the question. She told Roof at his bond hearing last summer, “May God have mercy on you.”

As one of two adult survivors of the shooting, Sanders was the first prosecution witness in the trial.

Middleton said the families’ impulse to forgive may have been more knee-jerk than genuine emotion that is the result of contemplation.

“I don’t think they had time to absorb the fact that their loved ones were heinously murdered,” Middleton said.


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