The scene outside Emanuel AME Church on June 18, 2015
Dylann Roof’s opening statements lasted for only two minutes. Standing before the jury, he stressed that nothing was wrong with him, that he wasn’t hiding anything. And Roof made it clear that he wished to prevent his standby attorneys from presenting evidence of mental illness. At no time did he express remorse for the murders he committed at Emanuel AME Church.
“I’m not going to lie to you, not about myself of anything else,” Roof said before later adding, “Other than the fact that I trust people I shouldn’t and I’m better at embarrassing myself more than anybody else on the planet. Other than that, there is nothing wrong with me psychologically.”
Attorneys for the defense had tried numerous times to call on the jury to question Roof’s mental state before they declared him guilty in December. Each time, the defense’s efforts were deemed inappropriate for that stage of the trial. Wednesday marks the beginning of the sentencing phase of the trial, after which the jury will decide if Roof will receive a death sentence or life in prison. As Roof brought his brief statement to a close, he asked that the jury forget all that his attorneys had tried to say to save him from a death sentence.
With Roof previously stating that he has no plans to call witnesses or present evidence, federal prosecutors will guide the proceedings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams began the prosecution’s opening statement with a direct declaration: “This defendant’s horrific acts justify the death penalty.”
Williams told the jury that any one of the murders Roof committed would justify his execution, but taken together they demanded it. As the trial continues, prosecutors will focus on the dramatic impact that the loss of these lives had on the community and the victims’ families. They will also attempt to demonstrate Roof’s lack of remorse for his murders.
“I made the biggest wave I could. I did all I could do. Now it is in the hands of my brothers,” Williams said as he read from the jailhouse manifesto discovered in Roof’s cell six weeks after the shooting at Mother Emanuel. Citing the belief that his actions were retribution for perceived crimes perpetrated by African Americans, Roof did express regret in at least one portion of his prison journal. But those feelings were reserved only for himself.
“I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that never should have existed,” he wrote.
As Williams continued his opening statements, pictures of the victims flashed across the courtroom monitors. He described them all as pillars of the community, some nearing retirement, others just beginning a brand-new phase of their life. With jurors having seen photo after photo of the nine victims in death, it was now time for the prosecution to offer up evidence of who they were in life — and the holes left behind by their murders.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney was one of nine gunned down by Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church
Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was called to testify Wednesday. Her husband had welcomed Roof into Bible study on the night of the shooting and offered the young man a seat at his side. The reverend would be Roof's first victim as he opened fire.
Taking the stand, Pinckney was asked to describe how she met her future husband. They were both in college. He had started preaching at the age of 13 and led his own church by 18. Pushed together as their two friends socialized nearby, their first meeting was awkward, Pinckney said. They shook hands and sat looking away from each other, waiting for a conversation to develop. Pinckney’s college friend pestered her for days after that first encounter until she finally gave Clementa a call. They spoke for two hours on the phone.
Their first date was also their first fight. Standing in line at a Pizza Hut, Clementa insisted on paying for Jennifer’s lunch. She disagreed. From these beginnings, they’d develop a life and a family together. They were nearing their 16th wedding anniversary when Clementa was shot five times in the fellowship hall of Emanuel AME, while Jennifer hid with one of their daughters under a desk in the church office.
From the witness stand, Pinckney recounted a morning shortly after her husband’s death. She walked into her daughter Eliana’s room to wake her. Prior to the shooting, Eliana had signed up for dance classes. Her mother reminded her that classes were set to begin that day and told her that it was OK to cry.
Eliana replied, “No, I won’t cry because I know my daddy is with me, and he’s always going to be with me.”