Anthony and Myra Thompson
Rev. Anthony Thompson remembers the last moment he saw his wife alive. For weeks, Myra had been obsessed with one thing: preparing to lead Bible study on the night of June 17, 2015. She had barely left their home as she readied for that night, but the time had finally arrived for the former schoolteacher and counselor to lead the evening's studies at Emanuel AME.
"That's just how she was," Anthony said Wednesday as he sat at the witness stand. "It was about making sure she gave people what she thought they deserved."
Anthony had met Myra while the two were in college. Myra had missed her bus home and Anthony offered her a ride. She declined at first, but eventually the two got to know each other well over the course of their long drives to Charleston. Years would pass before the two began a relationship and became husband and wife.
"That was the best day of my life," Anthony said as a picture of his wife in her wedding dress appeared on the courtroom monitors. He was always disarmed by her smile, the look in her eyes, something about Myra could always stop him in his tracks. Looking at another photo of he and his wife together, Anthony recalled Myra asking for their portrait to be taken together that day "before they got too old." Now he calls it one of the best pictures of her he has.
On the day Myra was shot at Mother Emanuel along with eight other victims, Anthony remembers his wife smiling as he watched her head out the door. He didn't get to kiss her goodbye. He didn't get the chance to tell her he loved her. Later that night when he received a call telling him there had been a shooting at the church, he rushed out without locking the door and sped to the church. There he saw a row of ambulances waiting nearby and a crowd of police stopping him from entering. He soon learned that his wife was gone. By his own words, she was his world.
"What am I here for?" he asked as he broke down in tears on the witness stand. "If she's not here, then what am I here for?"
This is the pain and the heartache that federal prosecutors hope to make clear to the jurors tasked with deciding Dylann Roof's fate. They argue that the death penalty is the only sentence that would fit his crime of murdering nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel and leaving a gaping hole in the lives of those who loved them.
Serving as his own attorney, Roof has refused to offer any evidence or question witnesses. As the sentencing phase of the trial stretches on, prosecutors will continue to call on those closest to the victims to testify about their lives and true extent of lose brought on by their deaths.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney exhibited talent in the pulpit at an early age
Jennifer Pinckney, widow of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was the first to take the stand Wednesday. Much like Anthony Thompson, she too remembers the last moment she spent with her husband. She and their youngest daughter, Malana, sat in the pastor's office as he prepared for Bible study. He turned a television to cartoons to keep Malana occupied before he began to walk out of the room. Jennifer called out, asking for his credit card. She needed to make a payment for their daughter's summer camp. Clementa handed over the card and pulled the door closed as he left. Jennifer sat with her daughter, while just beyond the wall, her husband offered up the seat next to him to Roof, welcoming the stranger who entered the church without a word.
As Bible study drew to a close, Jennifer said she heard a "pop, pop, pop" sound, not knowing it was the shots that took her husband's life. She walked across the office and cracked the door before realizing that something was wrong. Easing the door closed, Jennifer grabbed her daughter and moved to the secretary's office, locking the door behind them. There they hid under a desk with their hands clamped over each other's mouths. Jennifer said she could hear Roof walk to the door and attempt to enter before finding it locked. When she believed they were safe, Jennifer grabbed her cellphone and called 911. Her face puckered as the call was played back to her in court.
Jennifer and Clementa Pinckney on their wedding day
The recording begins with Jennifer's voice, hushed and panicked, repeating "Mother Emanuel" to the operator. In the background, her daughter can be heard asking, "Daddy's dead?" as the voice on the other end of the line tells them to remain calm. Finally, police arrived, their voices growing louder as they make their way to Jennifer and her daughter's hiding place. When asked by U.S. Assistant Attorney Jay Richardson why she think they were spared that night, Jennifer Pinckney replied, "It wasn't my time or my daughter's time."
For Richardson and his fellow prosecutors, Roof's ultimate sentence relies on proving that his actions affected more than just the lives he ended in that church. One by one, friends and family members will be called to the stand to talk about the lives of the victims and the dramatic changes that have taken place following their deaths.
Rev. Kylon Middleton testified Wednesday after Jennifer Pinckney. With a bright, uplifting voice, he described his lifelong friendship with Rev. Pinckney. Middleton was their for Jennifer and Clementa's wedding and the births of their children. And now Middleton serves to fill the void left by the murders at Mother Emanuel and the death of his friend.
"Beyond death, he is still my brother. Beyond death, his daughters are in my heart. Beyond death, his wife has a shoulder to cry on," Middleton told the court. "I refuse to breathe air and not allow the same love and depth of whatever he desired for them to be realized in their lifetimes."