CHARLESTON, S.C. – The dead appeared in court today, staring out from video monitors at their families and friends, their congregation’s pastor, a federal judge, a jury and Dylann Storm Roof, the man charged with firing more than 60 bullets into the nine of them in an effort to start a race war in America.
U.S. attorney Jay Richardson, prosecuting Roof on 33 counts of federal hate crimes, used his opening statement to introduce jurors to the men and women he said Roof killed during a church basement Bible study on June 17, 2015.
As their pictures appeared, Richardson sketched them in words: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney: pastor, husband, father; the Rev. Daniel Simmons: spiritual guide; the Rev. Sharonda Singleton: ray of sunshine, loving mother, track coach; the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor: singer, whose four young daughters always carried milkshakes to church; Cynthia Hurd: wife, sister, librarian; Ethel Lance: grandmother, church usher; Susie Jackson: called Aunt Susie by everyone, proud matriarch of the sprawling Jackson family; Tywanza Sanders, 26, a man just beginning to see the promise of an extraordinarily bright future.
And once the jury had seen their smiles and heard their stories, Richardson told them how they died.
He said they were killed by a man who targeted them because they were black, because killing them in a church would “magnify his message” of hate, and who had planned their deaths for months.
The jurors mainly focused on Richardson but occasionally glanced at Roof, now 22, sitting at the defense table in his gray-and-white-striped prison jumpsuit, his blond hair in a short pageboy bob, looking pale, thin and younger than his years.
Roof stared ahead and down without emotion, without moving. Before the trial started, a bailiff told him that his mother and other family members were sitting behind him in the public gallery. He turned around, appeared to grimace slightly, said nothing and turned immediately back to the front of the court.
Richardson narrated the state’s case:
At a Wednesday evening Bible study in the basement of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Roof walked in carrying a Glock .45-caliber handgun hidden in a pouch.
“Little did they know what a cold and hateful heart he had,” Richardson said.
Pinckney offered the visitor a seat next to him and gave him a Bible and a study guide so he could follow along. The Gospel of Mark. The parable of the sower. Roof sat and listened for more than 30 minutes, then pulled out his gun and shot Pinckney “over and over again.”
Then he shot Simmons.
“Shell casings were tumbling across the parish hall,” Richardson said.
The others dived for the floor, and Roof moved among them, reloading. He had filled eight magazines with 11 hollow-point bullets each.
He emptied an entire magazine into Jackson, who was 87. Then he killed Lance, Singleton, Hurd, Middleton-Doctor.
Polly Sheppard, a retired nurse, was on the ground praying. She saw Roof’s boots approaching.
“Shut up!” Roof said. Then he told her that he would let her live so she could tell the world what he had done.
Sanders, already shot, confronted him. “We mean you no harm,” he said.
Roof exploded: “Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world.” Then Roof shot him, repeatedly.
Richardson said that in total, Roof fired more than 70 bullets, more than 60 of which hit his victims.
Richardson told the jury that Roof had planned his attack for months, choosing Mother Emanuel because of its historical significance to the black community in Charleston.
“It was done with malice in his heart . . . racist retribution for perceived offenses against the white race,” Richardson said. He said that Roof wanted to start a race war and that he saw his “massacre” as “a catalyst for hate, division and mistrust to take hold.”
After Roof was arrested, Richardson said he “confessed fully” to FBI agents who interviewed him, telling them: “I went to the church that night. I did it. I killed them.”
In written manifestos and his interview with the FBI, Richardson said, Roof said “I had to do it” because nobody was doing anything about “black-on-white crime” and “it’s not too late to take the country back from blacks.”
After Richardson’s detailed presentation, David Bruck, Roof’s attorney and a death-penalty specialist, told the jury, “You’re probably wondering, ‘So what are we doing here, why does there have to be a trial?’ ”
Bruck said he expected the jury to find Roof guilty of killing victims he called “noble.” But he asked the jurors to closely examine Roof’s life history to see “if there are reasons to choose life” in prison, rather than execution.
After a midday break, Sanders, one of only three survivors of the attack, took the stand. Asked to describe the stranger who had joined the Bible study that night, she pointed at Roof and said, “He looked like the defendant sitting right over there.”
She said it was not unusual for visitors to be welcomed into Bible study.
“If that guy over there came into the church and said I need a place to stay, I guarantee he would be staying at my house,” she said, looking at Roof. “I just thought he was somebody coming in to seek the Lord.”
After Roof was seated next to Pinckney, Sanders said, someone said something funny and Roof chuckled. But, she said, looking directly toward Roof at the defense table, “Most of the time he hang his head down, just the way he is right now.”
The Bible study lasted 45 minutes to an hour, Sanders said, and then everyone stood, closed their eyes and started saying a prayer.
She heard a “loud sound.” She thought it was an electrical transformer exploding. Then she saw the gun.
“He had already shot Reverend Pinckney,” she said.
“Next thing I know, bullets started flying everywhere.”
She said she was lying under the table, holding her 11-year-old granddaughter, who was saying, “Granny, I’m so scared.”
“I said, just be quiet, just play dead. I squeezed her face to my body so tight that I thought I suffocated her,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
As she lay there, her son, Tywanza, was on one side of her and Jackson, her aunt, was on the other, both of them shot. “I could feel the warm blood flowing on either side of me.”
She said Roof confronted “Miss Polly” Sheppard and told her that he would spare her so she could tell the world what he had done.
At that moment, she said, Tywanza stood up to confront Roof and protect Sheppard.
From the witness stand, Sanders looked directly at Roof, her face covered with tears.
“The defendant over there, with his head hanging down, refusing to look at me right now, said, ‘I have to do this because y’all are raping our women and taking over the world.’ ”
“That’s when he put about five bullets in my son,” she said.
Overcome with emotion, Sanders said, “Seventy-seven shots in that room, from someone we thought was looking for the Lord.”
She said the Bible study group had welcomed him, and “he just sat there the whole time, evil, evil, evil as can be.”
Sobs began rising from the gallery of about 30 or 40 friends and family members. One woman had to leave the courtroom.
“As the defendant was leaving, my son started screaming, ‘Aunt Susie! Aunt Susie!'”
“I said, ‘Tywanza, lay still.'”
She said Sheppard had already called 911.
She said Tywanza said, “I got to get to Aunt Susie” and started crawling toward her.
She told him: “I love you, Tywanza. I love you, Tywanza.”
She said he replied: “I love you too, mom.”
She said he asked for water and said he couldn’t breathe.
She said to Sheppard, “Please help my son.”
Sheppard grabbed a white tablecloth off a table and went toward Tywanza.
“Then we watched him take his last breath,” Sanders said. “I watched my son come into this world, and I watched my son leave this world.”
Sanders was sobbing loudly. Most of the people in the friends-and-family section of the courtroom were weeping.
Judge Richard M. Gergel called a 10-minute recess.
Even the sketch artist was crying.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Kevin Sullivan