Charleston church survivor recalls attack, calls Roof ‘evil.’
Says she watched son die as she sheltered granddaughter
CHARLESTON, S.C. | A survivor of last year’s massacre at a black South Carolina church testified Wednesday that her Bible study group had just closed their eyes and started praying when a loud sound shattered the stillness. The basement room went dark.
When Felicia Sanders opened her eyes, she saw a young white man the parishioners had welcomed to the study only a half-hour earlier. Dylann Roof was mowing down the pastor and eight others with gunfire and hurling racial insults.
Ms. Sanders, the first witness in Mr. Roof’s death penalty trial, fought back tears as she recalled sheltering her granddaughter under a table and telling her to play dead. She watched in horror as her son Tywanza and her 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson, were killed in the fusillade.
At one point, she looked across the courtroom toward Mr. Roof and called him “evil, evil, evil.”
The gunman had planned the attack for months and traveled about 100 miles to Charleston on June 17, 2015, to attack Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in the South, because of what it represented, prosecutors said. He told the parishioners he was killing them because blacks were raping white women and taking over the country. In a manifesto found later, he said he hoped to start a race war.
The attorney for the 22-year-old all but conceded during opening statements that Mr. Roof committed the slayings but suggested that he should be spared the death penalty.
One of three survivors, Ms. Sanders said Mr. Roof came by the Wednesday night gathering and was given a study sheet and a Bible by the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state senator.
When she heard the loud noise, she assumed something was wrong with the electricity. Then she saw the real reason.
“I screamed he had a gun,” she said. But by that time, Pinckney already had been shot. Soon her son was hit.
“I watched my son come into this word and I watched my son leave this world,” she said before becoming so distraught that U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel called a recess. Several people sitting among the survivors’ family members and several jurors dabbed away tears.
Mr. Roof, wearing a striped prison jumpsuit, just stared down at the defense table, as he did throughout the day.
“He just sits there the whole time. Evil, evil, evil as can be,” Ms. Sanders testified.
In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said Mr. Roof had a “cold and hateful heart.”
“He pulled the trigger on that Glock .45 more than 70 times that night. More than 60 times he hit parishioners,” the prosecutor said.
Before the slayings, Mr. Roof had posed in photos with the Confederate flag. The attack prompted South Carolina to completely remove the emblem from its Capitol grounds. Other state and local governments voted to take down Confederate monuments, remove the flag from parks or rename government buildings honoring Confederate soldiers.
If Mr. Roof is convicted, the case will move to the penalty phase, where he plans to act as his own lawyer to apparently fight for his life.
A panel of 12 jurors, five black jurors and one person of another race were selected, according to court officials who said the alternates will not be picked until the end of the trial.
Mr. Roof’s trial began only days after another one with racial overtones ended in a mistrial. Jurors could not agree on a verdict for former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who shot a black man in the back as he was running away from a traffic stop. A bystander recorded the shooting, and it was seen widely on TV and online.
The church slayings took place a little more than two months after the Slager shooting, and Charleston has stayed mostly calm.
State prosecutors plan to retry Mr. Slager.
Homeland Security officers patrol the streets outside the Federal Courthouse Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, during Dylann Roof’s trial. Mr. Roof is accused of killing nine black people at a church during a prayer meeting.
Dylann Roof’s attorney all but conceded his client committed the attack, but wanted him spared the death penalty.