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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Survivor Recalls Church Massacre on First Day of Charleston Trial

The long-awaited federal death penalty trial of the accused killer of nine in an historic black South Carolina church got underway in Charleston Wednesday with a survivor of the attack describing the gunman as "evil, evil, evil as can be."


(CN) - It began with just after the members of a South Carolina Bible study group closed their eyes and began to pray.

That's how Felicia Sanders, a survivor of last year's massacre at a historic black church in Charleston recalled the moment before nine members of the study group lost their lives.

Testifying on the first day of the federal death penalty trial of accused gunman Dylann Roof, Sanders said the solitude of prayer in the basement room where the study group gathered was abruptly shattered by the sound of gunshots.

She told the jury that she saw Roof, the young white man the parishioners had welcomed to the study only a half-hour earlier, mowing down the pastor and eight others with gunfire while hurling racial insults at them.

Sanders began to softly cry as she spoke of sheltering her granddaughter under a table and telling her to play dead.

She also recalled the horror of watching her son, Tywanza, and her 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson, killed.

At one point during her chilling account, Sanders looked directly at Roof who was seated across the courtroom from her.

"Evil, evil, evil as can be," was all she could say.

Prosecutors Roof planned the June 17, 2015 attack on the parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Church -- the oldest black church in the South -- for months, hoping that his actions would start a race war.

They said he told the parishioners he was killing them because blacks were raping white women and taking over the country.

Before Sanders testified, prosecutors launched their case by showing the jury photographs of each victim, describing their individual backgrounds, and what brought each of them to the Bible study class on what turned out to be the last night of their lives.

Several of the murdered parishioners, the prosecution said, had received their long awaited ministry certificates mere hours before they were gunned down.

Roof, wearing a gray and white jail jumpsuit, showed no emotion and rarely looked up as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson described the methodical way he allegedly killed his victims.

“As the group of 12 joined together that night, they welcomed a 13th -- Dylann Roof," Richardson said. "He seemed to the 12 to be harmless, little did they know he had a cold a hateful heart.”

He told the jury as Roof planned the murders, he bought a Glock 45 caliber pistol, did research to select the target for his attack, and engaged in frequent target practice.

Richardson told jurors that during a two-hour confession Roof revealed he chose Charleston because it’s an historic city and targeted the church on Calhoun Street because it is the oldest AME church in the South, and because of its significance to the African American community.

“He talked about his call to arms, how he wanted to increase racial tensions and that it would lead to a race war,” Richardson said.

In addition to Sanders, the prosecution's list of witnesses include Polly Sheppard, another survivor of the attack, first responders, law enforcement, firefighters the medical examiner, crime scene detectives and the FBI agent who interviewed Roof during his taped confession.

Evidence gathered at the crime scene, from the car Roof drove to North Carolina after the shooting, and from his parent's home will be presented as exhibits, as will the taped confession.

Richardson warned that is will be a long trial, but that he expects the jury will find Roof guilty of all 33 federal counts faces.

“We will prove the defendant’s attack was cold and calculated and done with malice in his heart and mind,” he said. “It is hatred, racism, an assault on innocent people in a place of worship. Justice should prevail, not on skin color but on choices made and actions taken.”

In his opening statement, renowned defense attorney David Bruck agreed with Richardson in expecting a guilty verdict. Bruck said the defense does not plan to heavily question the state’s witnesses and does not have plans to call many of their own.

“There is not any real dispute about the evidence at this point,” Bruck said. “This is going to be hard. You will see things that you will never be able to un-see.”

After acknowledging Roof’s guilt he focused his opening argument on the sentencing phase of the trial which drew several objections from the prosecution. US District Judge Richard Gergel sustained the objections and told Bruck to keep his opening statement on the guilt phase of the trial.

He urged the jurors to be open to understanding what could have lead to Roof committing this horrific crime, and urged them to consider his background, his motivations and influences. Bruck reminded the jury that Roof was only 21-years old at the time of the massacre.

“On what planet would a person think you could advance a political agenda by attacking a church?” he asked.

The jury will ultimately decide whether Roof will spend the rest of his life in prison or will be sentenced to death.

Roof has been granted permission to represent himself in the sentencing phase of the trial, while having his defense team represent him through the guilt phase.

Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Trials

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