Courtroom sketch artist's depiction of the emotional first day in court for Dylann Roof
Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church that left nine dead and a community devastated, was called as the first witness for the prosecution in the federal trial of Dylann Roof. Recounting the night that she watched her son, aunt, and fellow parishioners gunned down, Sanders pointed out Roof as the man who entered Bible study that night and opened fire.
“We shut our eyes, started praying, a loud sound went off,” said Sanders, describing the moment following Bible study when Roof opened fire. Before that moment, Sanders said Roof had sat quietly with his head down throughout the group’s discussion. According to Sanders, she thought Roof was somebody coming in to “seek the word.”
Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the first to be shot, Sanders said. The others in the room spread as the gunman fired round after round. Sanders hid under a table, clutching her young granddaughter, telling the girl to play dead.
“I muzzled her face to my body so tight I thought I’d suffocate her,” Sanders said, before describing the feeling of warm blood that pooled around the two. Sanders’ youngest son, Tywanza Sanders had already been struck with a bullet. Asked about her son’s love of writing, Sanders said Tywanza “left enough poetry for me to read the rest of my life.” On the night that he died, Tywanza approached his shooter, asking the man, “Why are you doing this?”
Felicia Sanders pointed at Roof from the witness stand, denouncing his unwillingness to look at her as she described the killing of her son. According to Sanders, Roof told Tywanza “I have to do this,” before shooting him in the chest five times. When questioned by lead defense attorney David Bruck regarding what Roof said he planned to do after the shooting, Sanders replied, “He said he was going to kill himself. And I was counting on that ... He is evil. There is no place on earth for him except the pit of hell.”
For the rest of Monday’s court proceedings, the prosecution called a series of police officers and first responders to describe what they found when they arrived at the scene of the shooting. Officer David Stewart with the Charleston Police Department was the first member of law enforcement to enter the church. Working to clear the building of any possible threat, Stewart recalled seeing shapes along the floor of the church. These would turn out to be the bodies of the victims.
Sgt. Justin Kniess also testified about the night of the shooting. Like many of the other officers who took the stand Monday, he had never been to Emanuel AME until he received the call that shots had been fired. Kniess recalled entering the church and seeing multiple victims on the ground, shell casings, and a small child in shock. At that time, Kniess was one of the officers with the Charleston police equipped with a body-worn camera that captured images from the chaotic scene inside the church. The video from Kniess’ camera was played in court, beginning with the officer’s view as he peered around the corner of Mother Emanuel on a dark June night. Carefully making his way through the church’s side doors, Kniess enters the building as a small child — the granddaughter of Felicia Sanders — was led past by another officer. Between two rows of tables drapped with white tablecloth, a man’s body could be seen lying lifeless on the far end of the room.
Joined by his fellow officers, Kniess raced room to room, carefully clearing the building. Police guarded the entrances of the church out of concern that the shooter may attempt to return. In the video from Kniess’ camera, Sanders can be heard describing the shooter to an officer. “A small, pale, white boy,” she said. Kniess instructed his fellow officers to take the surviving witnesses to a safe location across the street. He then called out to ask if anyone had an accurate body count. Walking across the church basement, Kniess counted aloud, the number rising with each step. As he had done throughout the day, Roof refused to look up as the video played, refused to look up at the scene he is accused of leaving behind.