Penalty Phase Begins In Dylann Roof Church Shooting Trial

Jan 4, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 5:26 pm
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Dylann Roof, the white supremacist convicted last month of killing nine people at a South Carolina church, is back in court again today. The 22-year-old was convicted of federal hate crimes for the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in 2015. Now a jury will decide whether he will spend life in prison or be executed.

NPR's Debbie Elliott is covering the trial and joins us now from Charleston. Hi, Debbie.


SHAPIRO: Dylann Roof is representing himself for this part of the trial against the judge's advice. He spoke directly to the jury for the first time today. What did he say?

ELLIOTT: Well, it was very brief. He was very soft-spoken. It was hard to understand and to hear him. He acknowledged his opening statement is going to seem, quote, "a little out of place." He did not ask the jury to spare his life, and he didn't explain his racial motives.

He did take that opportunity to explain that he wanted to represent himself to avoid his lawyers arguing that his mental health should be considered a mitigating factor. I'm not going to lie to you, he said. There's nothing wrong with me psychologically.

SHAPIRO: The death penalty is rarely pursued in federal cases. Why are prosecutors arguing for it in this case here?

ELLIOTT: They're saying that the horrific crime itself justifies the most significant punishment available. When you gun down nine people who welcome you into a Bible study, you deserve that ultimate punishment. Prosecutors are also asking the jurors to keep their minds on a number of aggravating factors as well - Dylann Roof's lack of remorse, his intent to incite racial violence, the fact that he targeted this historic church for the impact that it would have.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, during his opening statement, said Dylann Roof killed nine vulnerable people because of the color of their skin. He says they're going to present evidence that will show Roof's writings from jail six weeks after the attack. He showed this image, and you could see in handwriting - I'm going to read you a quote now - "I would like to make crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what the government is saying as it now presents its side of the case.

ELLIOTT: Well so far, the testimony has been designed to show the impact on victims and what a void these nine deaths have left in this community. The first witness was Jennifer Pinckney. She's the widow of Emanuel Pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney. She's also a survivor of the attack. She described being in the church office with her 6-year-old daughter when they heard the gunfire next door at the bible study. She also described a loving and active husband and father, a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, a history buff and a wearer of quirky ties.

You know, at times, there were lots of photographs of family milestones that were both touching and funny stories told. It felt more like a wake than a trial. The Reverend Anthony Thompson testified. His wife, Myra, was killed. He talked about a photograph of her at their wedding and said, that was the best day of my life right there.

SHAPIRO: And what more do we know about how Roof plans to argue his case?

ELLIOTT: Well, he has told the judge he's not going to present any witnesses, and thus far he has not sought to cross-examine anyone who has testified for the government. He's just risen and said, no questions. He did submit a written objection to the number of witnesses the government plans to call. And at that point, the judge denied it and said, you know, the reality is that it wouldn't take so long if there weren't so many victims here.

Even if Roof declines to present a case, the judge has told the jury that they do have to consider certain mitigating factors that have been stipulated, including Roof's age, that he was 21 at the time. He has no prior history of violence, the fact that he confessed and cooperated with authorities. And key here I think is that he offered to plead guilty in exchange for his life sentence. And the judge said that life in prison would offer time for redemption and change. So...

SHAPIRO: All right.

ELLIOTT: We'll see what he ends up doing.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charleston, thanks a lot.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.