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Jennifer Pinckney describes moments of terror inside Emanuel AME Church

Jennifer Pinckney thought her moments were numbered when she saw a doorknob begin to turn outside the office where she and her young daughter cowered beneath a desk, shaking as they heard gunfire roar again and again.

Moments earlier, she and 6-year-old Malana had been hanging out in her husband's office in Emanuel AME Church, where he served as pastor, waiting for him to finish with the weekly Bible study. Then: "Pop! Pop! Pop!"

At first, Pinckney thought a generator had blown. When the truth dawned on her, she locked the office door, grabbed her daughter and ran for an adjoining room where they took shelter beneath a secretary's desk. She told her daughter that someone was shooting and they needed to be silent.

"Is Daddy going to die?" Malana asked, terrified.

"Be quiet. Don't say anything."

Pinckney put her hand over her daughter's mouth. The child reached up and did the same. They waited, listening. Out in the church's fellowship hall, gun blasts sounded over and over, the noise shifting as the shooter moved around the room.

Then, the doorknob started to turn.

"A chill came completely over me," Pinckney recalled. "I was like, 'This is it. This is it for us.'"

On Wednesday, Pinckney shared her harrowing account of the night of June 17, 2015, during the first day of testimony in the penalty phase of Dylann Roof's federal hate crimes trial. Convicted last month of 33 federal offenses, Roof faces a possible death sentence for killing nine people inside the historic church. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down as his wife and daughter hid.

Pinckney was the first in a string of witnesses who will testify in the coming days about the gaping holes left in their lives by the killings and the inherent goodness of the nine people who were lost. Pinckney’s words carried a chilling weight following a prosecutor's revelation that Roof had penned a jailhouse manifesto six weeks after his arrest, saying he had “no regret” for the killings and hadn’t shed a tear for his victims.

Pinckney told the jury that she thought death was imminent for her as well until the gunman suddenly released the doorknob and walked out of the church that night, a ringer chiming behind him to signal his exit. She crawled from her hiding place and ran for her phone in her husband's office, calling 911 and summoning help.

The jury sat in silence as a tape of that 911 call played in the courtroom. The terror in her voice stood in stark contrast to Roof’s calm demeanor during his brief opening statements earlier in the day when he told the jury in a flat, hollow tone, “There is nothing wrong with me.”

Acting as his own attorney, Roof told the jury he has no mental health issues or secrets he is trying to hide. It was the first time the 22-year-old white supremacist addressed the 12 jurors who will decide whether he receives a death sentence or a life prison term for his crimes. He offered no explanation or apologies for the bloodshed he left in his wake.

Rather, Roof has left it to prosecutors to frame his actions, drawing from a taped confession to the killings and racist writings before the shooting detailing his desire to start a race war. In their opening statement, prosecutors previewed more evidence to come, namely that Roof had doubled down in his jailhouse manifesto on the racist theories that fueled the church attack.

“I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed,” he wrote in his jailhouse journal.

Roof added that his pity was reserved for innocent white children “forced to live in this sick country” and white people “killed daily at the hands of the lower race.” He stated that he also felt pity for himself that he had to sit in alone in a cell, unable to go to a movie, eat a nice meal or drive his car, but he felt “it was worth it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams told the jury.

“I feel pity that I had to do what I had to do in the first place,” Roof stated in the journal. “I feel pity that I had to give up my life for a situation that never should have existed.”

Williams said Roof deserves the death penalty for the scope and premeditation of his horrific acts, the vulnerability of the people he killed and the lack of remorse he has shown, Williams said. He noted that Roof fired the most bullets – 11 rounds - into the oldest victim, 87-year-old Susie Jackson.

Any one of the killings at Emanuel AME Church would warrant death, Williams said. But taken together, they justify the jury imposing "the most significant penalty available to you," he said.

With his life on the line, Roof spoke for less than five minutes during his opening statement. He urged the jury to forget the words of his former attorney, David Bruck, who asked that they ponder Roof's state of mind and whether a rational person would see the murder of nine innocents as an acceptable solution to his grievances.

Roof said also told them it is "absolutely true" that he chose to represent himself because he didn't want his legal team to present mental health records and other mitigating evidence in his defense.

"But it isn't because I have a mental illness I don't want you to know about. It isn't because I'm trying to keep a secret," he said.

He ended saying, "There's nothing wrong with me."

As he sat down, several of the nine victims' loved ones, who crammed the prosecutors' side of the courtroom, glanced around at each other with looks of disbelief.

Roof went on to say little more during the day. He had no questions for any of the government’s witnesses and, for the most part, sat stone-faced , staring down at the defense table.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, worked methodically to put a human face on the tragedy, eliciting testimony and displaying photographs that painted tender and moving portraits of those lost through the life moments – large and small – that defined them.

Man of service

They began with Jennifer Pinckney. She told the jury about how she met her future husband, a good and kind man who became a pastor at 18, state representative at age 23 and a senator just a few years later. He represented a sprawling rural district with many needs and became a “voice for the voiceless,” a passionate fighter for jobs, education and other issues.

His phone was always ringing as he juggled myriad responsibilities as a pastor and lawmaker, but he always made time for family, Pinckney said. He read to his girls even before they were born. He later encouraged them to express themselves in words and music, and to use their minds, she said.

"He instilled a whole lot in those girls," Jennifer Pinckney said.

She faced the hardest task of her life telling Malana and older sister Eliana, 11, that their daddy was dead.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson asked Pinckney why she thought she had been spared that night. "God is a just God,” she replied, “and I couldn't see God taking both parents away from two small kids."

As Pinckney's testimony concluded, both of Roof's former lead defense attorneys, Kim Stevenson and David Bruck, reached for tissues at the defense table and dabbed their eyes. Roof continued staring forward, expressionless.

She was followed by two close friends of Clementa Pinckney, the Rev. Kylon Middleton and state Sen. Gerald Malloy. Both described his tireless work for those in need and the unwavering friendship he bestowed on those closest to him.

Bible study leader

The day ended with testimony from the Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife Myra also died in the shooting. Thompson choked back tears at times as he described his love for his wife, pausing at one point as a picture of her on their wedding day flashed on the courtroom screen.

“That was the best day of my life right there," he said, voice cracking. “She was beautiful, inside and out.”

Thompson said his wife had a passion for teaching and helping others. She went back to school to earn a counseling degree because she saw kids in need. She also discovered how much difficulty students had with reading, so she went back and got a degree to become a literacy specialist, he said.

Thompson recalled that his wife would tell him sometimes that she needed money to buy new clothes. Later, he would discover she had really given the money to people in need.

On the night of June 17, 2015, Myra was to lead her first Bible study at Emanuel, an event for which she had spent months preparing. As she left their home, Myra "had this glow, this smile on her face, like she was radiant." Their gazes met in the hallway, and he felt paralyzed for some reason, as if he couldn’t get close to her. Then, she was gone.

Thompson told the jury about the call he received later that night, summoning him to the church and the awful news that awaited him. They had planned to grow old together and had recently talked about traveling and moving to Charlotte to be closer to their grandchildren. Now, he wonders just what he will do.

"She was everything I had, everything I ever wanted, and my life will never be the same,” he said. “Never, never. Never.”

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

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