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Dylann Roof's federal trial is taking place in the courthouse complex at the Four Corners of Law
Opening statements in the federal trial of Dylann Roof began Wednesday with a dramatic account of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson first detailed the lives and personalities of the nine men and woman killed during the church’s weekly Bible study. As photos of each of the victims flashed across the screen in the courtroom, Roof sat in a gray-and-white striped prison jumpsuit, never once looking up from his lap.
“As the group of 12 joined together that night, they welcomed a 13th — Dylann Roof,” Richardson told the jury before saying that to those in the church Roof seemed harmless as he was offered a seat next to the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney. According to the prosecution, Roof had carefully planned his attack, researching the church, making several visits to Charleston, and even stopping to ask an African-American parishioner Emanuel AME’s hours of service prior to the shooting. Prosecutors plan to show Roof’s videotaped confession recorded after he was apprehended in North Carolina following the shooting. Richardson told the jury that the confession will include not only a detailed account of what happened on the night of the shooting, but Roof’s explanation of what motivated his “racial retribution for perceived offenses against the white race.”
According to Richardson, Roof stated that he had to murder those at Mother Emanuel. In Roof’s opinion, white supremacist groups were “all talk” and it was his duty to serve as a catalyst to allow hate and division to spread.
After months of preparation, Roof entered the church that night with 88 rounds of ammunition in total. Richardson said Roof waited until the end of Bible study, when the member of Mother Emanuel closed their eyes to pray, to pull his pistol. By the end of the hot, muggy evening, he had fired more than 70 shots, striking his victims 60 times.
Discarding empty magazines and reloading his weapon, Roof found survivor Polly Sheppard hiding as she prayed. Roof told her to shut up, before asking if she had been shot. Sheppard was then told that she would be left alive so that she could tell others what had occurred. She will likely serve as the final witness for the prosecution in the guilt phase of the trial.
The government also plans to call survivor Felicia Sanders, followed by first responders who arrived on the scene immediately after the shooting, as well as CSI agents, and experts that attorneys hope will prove Roof’s guilt on all 33 charges listed in his federal indictment.
Lead defense attorney David Bruck chose not to refute the government’s account of the shooting and quickly told the jury that Roof was the man who opened fire in the church that night. Acknowledging Roof’s guilt, Bruck instead chose to frame his argument around the sentencing phase of the trial, during which jurors will consider whether Roof should face execution or life in prison without the possibility of release. Judge Gergel has granted Roof’s request to represent himself during this portion of the trial, meaning that Bruck and his fellow defense attorneys will be required to sit by as Roof’s fate is decided. As Bruck attempted to discuss the sentencing phase, his comments drew an objection from the prosecution. Gergel sustained the government’s multiple objections and reminded Bruck that he was only permitted to discuss the charges in question and Roof’s guilt or innocence.
Questioning Roof’s mindset and the reasoning of the plan he carried out, Bruck called on the jurors to consider not whether or not Roof was guilty of the murders, but why he had chosen to commit such a heinous act.
“This is going to be hard ... You’ll see things that you will never be able to unsee,” Bruck told the jurors, asking that they take in mind Roof’s experiences and motivations. According to Bruck, the defense may not call any witnesses during the guilt portion of the trial and may not question most of those called by the prosecution.
In his final words to the jury, Bruck said, “The hard part of the trial starts now. And it will be hard.”