Dylann Roof’s journey to conviction could end Thursday when a federal jury begins to mull his guilt on 33 charges in the Emanuel AME Church massacre — a crime to which he confessed while chuckling about the carnage he left behind.
Jurors will hear closing arguments from a prosecution team that questioned 36 witnesses while revealing Roof’s confession, handwritten journal, online manifesto, a 911 call and the harrowing moments inside the church’s fellowship hall when Roof reportedly opened fire on a Bible study.
They also will hear from Roof’s lead defense attorney, David Bruck, a nationally renowned capital defense lawyer who rested his case Wednesday without calling a single witness. Bruck’s closing arguments could mark the last words jurors hear from him before he hands the reins to Roof, a 22-year-old, self-avowed white supremacist who dropped out of high school.
If convicted, Roof, who declined to take the stand in his own defense, has opted to act as his own attorney during the sentencing phase of the trial, set to begin on Jan. 3. Bruck then will be relegated to an advisory role.
On Wednesday, prosecutors called shooting survivor Polly Sheppard as their final witness in this phase of the trial, taking jurors back to the night of June 17 when 13 people — including Roof — gathered for Bible study.
Sheppard, a 72-year-old retired nurse, described how Emanuel's pastor welcomed the stranger who joined them and handed Roof a Bible and a paper with the week's Scripture lesson.
Less than an hour later, as the group shut their eyes and bowed for closing prayer, a blast rang out.
"The defendant started shooting," Sheppard said.
She described thinking at first that the gunshots were sparks from faulty wiring in the historic church. But then her longtime friend Felicia Sanders, sitting at a table beside her, shrieked that Roof had a gun, Sheppard said.
During her emotional testimony, Sheppard clutched a tissue and kept her voice even while recounting the chaos that followed. Roof, as was his practice throughout testimony, stared down at the defense table.
Sheppard, who once worked as a nurse at the jail where Roof now is housed, said she dove under a table when he opened fire. Shell casings clattered to the floor and gunshot blasts echoed over the fellowship hall as some 77 hollow-point bullets were fired. From beneath a table, Sheppard watched the gunman's boots step closer and closer to her, she said.
When Roof reached her, he pointed his .45-caliber Glock at her feet.
"I was praying out loud," she said. "He told me to shut up."
He asked if he had shot her yet.
"No," she replied.
"'I'm not going to,'" she said Roof told her. "'I'm going to leave you here to tell the story."
As he walked away, Sheppard noticed that a cellphone had fallen beside her during the shooting. She grabbed it and frantically punched at the keys. The call didn't go through. She heard Roof's gun click twice and thought he had run out of bullets. She tried dialing 911 again.
This time, an operator answered.
"Please, Emanuel church," Sheppard said in muffled tones between shallow breaths. "People shot. Please send (help) right away!"
She tells the operator that a gunman shot the pastor.
"He shot all the men in the church. Please come right away."
Noticing a shadowy movement near a door, Sheppard thought the killer was still inside.
"Send someone down here, please," she pleaded, breathing heavily into the phone.
The female operator warned Sheppard to stay quiet and not hang up.
"He's coming. He's coming. Please!" Sheppard said. "He's reloading."
The call continues as Sheppard cowers beneath the table waiting for help, unsure if the gunman has left the church's fellowship hall.
Police arrived shortly after asking, "Where is he?" But by then, Roof had ducked out of the church's side door and cruised out of town, driving up Meeting Street and then slipping up rural backroads as the city recoiled in shock at what had transpired inside Emanuel.
Police arrested him in a small North Carolina border town the next morning, and he promptly confessed to FBI agents.
“I mean, I just went to that church in Charleston and, uh, you know, I, you know, did it,” he told them.
Jurors on Friday heard Roof describe in chillingly nonchalant terms how he picked out the church to target black people in a place without security “because no one else is brave enough” to avenge his perceived wrongs against whites. He chose Emanuel, the oldest AME church in the South, because of its history and how an attack there would resonate with people, he said in his taped confession.
During that two-hour interview, Roof also admitted he knew Sheppard was alive.
"I didn't shoot her because she was, like, looking at me," Roof said.
Sheppard and fellow survivor Felicia Sanders book-ended six days of testimony from a long march of law enforcement officials and a pathologist who performed all nine autopsies.
Family members listened first thing Wednesday to detailed descriptions of the multiple gunshot wounds on each of the victims’ bodies as Medical University of South Carolina pathologist Erin Presnell explained the autopsies she conducted over four days.
She counted at least 60 gunshot wounds in all. Most of the hollow-point bullets hit the victims from the left side and flayed flesh and bones, piercing vital organs and arteries along fatal paths.
The oldest victim, 87-year-old family matriarch Susie Jackson, was struck more times than any other victim. She had at least 10 bullet wounds, all to her left side.
“They were so close together, it was hard to determine which gunshot hit what,” Presnell said.