Dylann Roof's hate crimes trial set to begin

Final jury selection and opening statements are set to begin this morning in the death penalty trial of Dylann Roof (File/AP Photo)

Witnesses painted a scene of chaos, blood and death inside Emanuel AME Church after last year’s shooting rampage as federal prosecutors began to build their case against Dylann Roof, a young man one survivor called “as evil as evil can be.”

Testimony got underway in the self-avowed white supremacist’s federal hate crimes trial Wednesday after Roof's lead attorney all but conceded Roof’s guilt in the June 2015 massacre. At this point, lawyer David Bruck said the goal is to keep Roof from getting the death penalty.

After weeks of delay in which Roof underwent a psychiatric exam after announcing a desire to take over his defense, the trial began with 18 people being impaneled as jurors and alternates. The panel – 12 whites, five blacks and one other of unspecified race – won’t know until the trial concludes whether they will be among the dozen deciding Roof’s fate.

Dressed in a grey striped jail jumpsuit, Roof stared at the table in front of him, statue-still, even as survivor Felicia Sanders described the jolting blasts of gunfire that erupted when the group shut their eyes for closing prayer on the night of June 17. She dove beneath a table, playing dead with her 11-year-old granddaughter, clutching the child so tightly to her chest to muffle any cries that she feared she might suffocate the child. Sanders swished her legs through the warm blood of her son and aunt who lay dying beside her so that Roof would think they were dead.

As her emotion built describing the bloodshed and betrayal by a visitor they had welcomed to Bible study, Sanders lambasted Roof for not looking her in the eye while she testified.

“Seventy-seven shots in that room from someone we thought was looking for the Lord,” Sanders said, her voice strong and clear even as she cried and stared at the killer. “But the whole time he was just evil, evil, as evil as can be!”

The courtroom filled with sobs from the nine victims’ loved ones as Sanders described how her son, Tywanza, tried to save his 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson, only to be coldly gunned down and die in front of her after Roof fled.

Sanders said her 26-year-old son, a young poet of great kindness and promise, had stood up, wounded, and pleaded with Roof to stop, saying they meant him no harm. Roof replied that he had to do this because, "You all are raping our women and you all are taking over the world," referring to black people. Roof then pumped five more rounds into her son, she said.

She watched as Tywanza crawled across the floor to touch his elderly Aunt Susie, who lay fatally wounded. He said he needed some water, that he couldn't breathe.

"I love you, Tywanza," she called.

"I love you too, Momma," he answered.

Then, he died, she said. He would be one of nine to die from the barrage of gunfire.

"I watched my son come into this world, and I saw my son leave this world," she said, sobbing.

Bruck asked Sanders if Roof had indicated that he was just 21 and that he also had planned to kill himself.

"I was counting on that," she replied. "He is evil. There's no place for him except the pit of hell."

Witness after witness described the carnage they said Roof left in his wake. He showed no emotion, however, though his mother had to be taken to a local hospital after she collapsed during a recess that followed opening statements in the case. She did not return to court, and the two benches behind Roof reserved for his family members remained mostly empty. In contrast, the shooting victims' loved ones and church members packed the entire other side of the courtroom.

Much of the day was spent building a foundation for the federal government’s case, with police and other first responders describing the harrowing scene they encountered when they entered the historic church that night.

Charleston police Sgt. Justin Kniess described rushing to Emanuel AME after a report of an active shooter. "I saw we had multiple victims on the ground, multiple shell casings. It was just chaos."

Kniess wore a body camera that night that captured the scene, and prosecutors played the chilling footage for the jury. Sirens wailed in the background as officers moved through the building, making sure it was clear of danger. "How many do we have?" Kniess is heard shouting. "I count eight," someone replies.

"He's gone," a woman who sounds like Sanders is heard crying. "Tywanza gone. My baby gone. My baby dead, and Aunt Susie dead!"

Sgt. John Lites, who also rushed to the church that night, testified that he came across a young man who was gravely wounded. As Tywanza drew his last breaths, Lites reached down and took his hand. "He squeezed my hand, he kind of smiled, and he passed away," Lites said.

Earlier in the day, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson used his opening statement to paint the victims as kind, gentle and giving people who were cut down by a calculating and methodical killer bent on starting a race war.

Richardson told jurors that Roof spent months planning his attack, scouting out the historic church, inquiring about its services and stockpiling ammunition.

"Mentally and physically, he prepared himself, conducting target practice and getting in the state of mind in which he would do what he believed he had to do," he said.

On the afternoon of June 17, 2015, Roof grabbed his .45-caliber pistol, loaded 88 Winchester hollow-point bullets into magazines and drove 90 minutes from his home near Columbia to Charleston to carry out his plan, Richardson said.

"He chose to execute nine good and innocent men and women," he said. "And he chose to do so out of a callous hatred of the color of their skin."

Roof left behind a racist online manifesto and a journal that described his hopes that the shooting would spark racial unrest to address perceived injustices blacks had committed against whites, Richardson said. Roof typed his manifesto on his father's computer just hours before the attack, he said.

"He hoped to send a message to other white people to stand up and do something," he said.

He chose Charleston because it was a historic city and targeted the affectionately known "Mother Emanuel," the oldest AME church in the South, because of its significance in the African-American community, Richardson said. Roof explained during a two-hour taped confession that a church also posed the least risk to him, Richardson added.

When Roof arrived at the Bible study, the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, invited Roof to sit beside him, and handed him a Bible and a copy of the evening's planned discussion on the Parable of the Sower. Roof shot Pinckney first that night.

"He seemed to the 12 (parishioners) to be harmless," he said. "Little did they know what a cold and hateful heart he had."

As Richardson described the horrific crime, the sound of victim Ethel Lance's daughters crying softly drifted through the courtroom. Sanders and fellow survivor Polly Sheppard sat stoic in the front row. A couple of rows back sat Jennifer Pinckney, the slain pastor's wife who hid with their young daughter in his office during the shooting.

Richardson said more than 70 shots were fired, and more than 60 made impact as Roof paced around the church's fellowship hall firing over and over.

“As each magazine emptied, shell casings tumbling across the parish hall, he tossed the magazine aside and loaded another in his Glock .45, standing over victim after victim and shooting repeatedly,” Richardson said.

In addition to the manifesto and journal, investigators found more evidence at Roof’s home, including a camera with images he used in his online manifesto, Richardson said. They also found a logo he had sketched with his initials, a swastika and the number "88," a reference to the eighth letter of the alphabet signifying "Heil Hitler" in white supremacist circles.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Bruck said Roof's legal team doesn't dispute the facts outlined by the government. "We don't disagree with any of this," he said.

Bruck said the defense will not call many witnesses - they may call none - and they likely won't question the state's witnesses at length. "There is not any real dispute about the evidence at this point, " he said.

But he urged the jury to keep an open mind and apply common sense as they consider the evidence, to consider who Dylann Roof is, where he came from and why this young man, barely 21 at the time, acted as he did.

"On what planet would a person think you could advance a political agenda by attacking a church?" Bruck said, suggesting there could be more to the story about Roof's motives.

He repeatedly tried to get the jury to think about Roof's background and what factors might have influenced him - a move that drew objection after objection from prosecutors.

That information is left to the penalty phase of the trial, not the guilt phase now underway, Richardson said. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel agreed, and cautioned Bruck against veering into that territory. Roof has chosen to represent himself during that second phase, and has indicated he wants his legal team to stay out of that proceeding.

Roof, now 22, faces 33 federal charges in all, including violations of hate crime laws and religious freedoms.

At the start of jury questioning last week, Roof asked to act as his own attorney, a request that Gergel granted despite calling it "strategically unwise." Roof then led his defense for five days, relegating his top-flight defense team to the role of passing him notes of advice, before switching course on Sunday and asking Gergel to bring them back to defend him during the guilt phase of the trial.

Roof's attorneys have offered for him to plead guilty and serve life in prison, but federal prosecutors are seeking a death sentence instead.

Meanwhile, state prosecutors also are seeking the death penalty. They have charged Roof with nine counts of murder and other charges. That trial is to begin Jan. 17.

Roof's hate crimes trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Richardson said the prosecution plans to call more law enforcement officers, including some investigators, to the witness stand. He said police photos of the crime scene will be revealed for the first time during their testimony.

“These are very graphic images,” Gergel said, warning that some family members might want to leave the courtroom while they’re displayed.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.

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