CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC/POOL) - A survivor of the Charleston church shooting and several Charleston police officers testified Wednesday about the victims and the crime scene in the trial of the man charged in their deaths.
Testimony began Wednesday morning after opening statements.
Dylann Roof, 22, faces 33 federal charges in the June 17, 2015, shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church that killed nine parishioners.
Shooting survivor Felicia Sanders was the first witness prosecutors called to the stand Wednesday after opening statements. Sanders choked back tears and called Dylann Roof "evil, evil, evil" as she described the shooting.
During her testimony, prosecutors had Sanders talk about the personalities of each of the victims, including State Sen. and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor, as their photos were shown on a monitor in the courtroom.
Several Charleston police officers who responded to the church the night of the shooting also took the stand Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors played police body cam video of the shooting, including footage showing victims on the floor inside the church's fellowship hall.
One of the police officers testified he held the hand of one of the victims as he passed away. That victim is believed to have been Tywanza Sanders, Felicia Sander's youngest son.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel told family members pictures and evidence expected to be shown in court Thursday would be even more graphic and warned it might be difficult for them to watch.
At different points during Felicia Sanders' testimony, several people in the courtroom were seen crying, including jurors, a defense attorney, reporters and a sketch artist.
Family members of the victims were also sobbing and some had to leave the courtroom during her testimony.
Sanders spoke of the Rev. Daniel Simmons, a man she called the "backbone" of the church who was very serious about Bible study and sternly called upon attendees to pay attention. She said she knew Simmons for two to three years.
Sanders said victim Myra Thompson was scheduled to lead the Bible study and was getting into ministry. It was Thompson's first time leading the Bible study that night and was excited to show Simmons she was ready. Sanders said she knew Thompson all her life.
Sanders said she felt sad when talking about victim Cynthia Hurd because Sanders asked Hurd to stay at the Bible study on the night of the shooting.
"I love you, if you love me you will stay in the Bible study," Sanders said she told Hurd.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Sanders said, was "the apple of everyone's eye," the kind of person that wold make the room light up whenever she entered.
The Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor was a "lovable person" who had four daughters, Sanders said.
Sanders said Ethyl Lance had a swag about her and loved the song, "One Day at a Time."
She also became emotional talking more about her son, Tywanza, saying the last text she received from him was one asking if Bible study was on for that night. She said she responded that it was and he then showed up to attend. Sanders said he left enough poetry for her to read the rest of her life.
Sanders' aunt, Susie Jackson, was another of the victims that night. Sanders said she was a breast cancer survivor and it was her "Aunt Susie" who helped her recover. Jackson would never say anything bad about anyone, Sanders said.
She also said Roof sat that night as he was as she was testifying: with his head down. Roof kept his head down during her testimony, not making eye contact with her.
Sanders said the Bible study began with a song and prayer, then Thompson led a study of the Book of Mark. She said Roof sat looking down during the study as he was doing during her testimony in the courtroom. She said that when the group stood to pray, she heard a loud sound, which she initially mistook for elevator construction before realizing it was gunfire. She said she screamed, "he has a gun," but by then, Roof had already shot Pinckney.
"There were so many shots. So many shots," she said as she described the chaos. She said she scrambled under a table for safety, clutching her granddaughter.
She told her then-11-year-old granddaughter to play dead, adding, "I muzzled her face to my body so tight." She said she rubbed her leg in the blood of another victim hoping the gunman would think she had been shot.
She also spoke of the shooting of her son. She said he was trying to get Roof's attention away from another survivor, Polly Sheppard, when he got up and asked, "Why are you doing this?" Roof, she says, shot Tywanza Sanders five times.
She said her son tried to get to Jackson to protect her, despite Sanders urging him to remain still. Sheppard, a nurse, was trying to help Sanders' son after he was wounded.
"We watched him take his last breath," she said. "I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world."
She said as she lay under the table with her granddaughter, she couldn't move.
"I was just waiting on my turn," she said. "There were 77 shots in that room from someone who we thought was looking for the Lord, but in return he sat there the whole time evil...as can be."
At one point, she became emotional on the stand, at which point the court appeared to take a short recess, as the closed-circuit monitor in the media room went blank.
Cameras are not typically allowed in a federal trial, but a closed-circuit camera is feeding a signal to a media room so reporters can report what is happening during the trial. However, members of the media are prohibited from taking photos or using images shown on the monitor.
Roof's attorney, David Bruck, is not disputing that his client committed the heinous crimes, but told they should pay attention to the little things and use their common sense to try and figure out what made Roof hate black people so much.
Bruck said he may not call any witnesses during the guilt or innocence phase of the death penalty trial because there is little question Roof committed the slayings.
A federal prosecutor called Roof a man with a "cold and hateful heart" when he pulled out a Glock pistol and opened fire. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson told jurors during his opening statement the young man must have appeared harmless to those attending a Bible study the evening of the shooting. Richardson said Roof showed exactly what was in his heart when he pointed the gun and pulled the trigger, hitting the church members more than 60 times.
Richardson told jurors they will hear Roof's confession and hear how he hoped to start a race war by targeting the AME parishioners. He urged the jurors to convict Roof on 33 federal counts, including hate crimes.
Richardson vowed that Roof's "racism, his violence, his assault on a house of worship won't prevail in this courtroom."
The second part of the trial is the penalty phase. Bruck tried to hint at reasons why Roof shouldn't be put to death, but prosecutors loudly objected, saying that was for the penalty phase. The judge agreed.
Roof has said he wants to represent himself during the penalty phase.
Twelve jurors and six alternates were seated within the first 20 minutes of court Wednesday. The two black women, eight white women, one white man and one black man were selected from a group of 67 that was whittled down from hundreds last week.
Potential jurors filed into the courtroom at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and waited for 15 minutes seated in rows before U.S. District Judge Gergel entered the courtroom. They were mostly silent and expressionless.
Gergel entered and swiftly proceeded with the striking process, when opposing sides are allowed to strike up to 20 jurors each. They're also allowed three strikes each for the six alternate jurors.
Strikes were made at random, so jurors didn't stand if their numbers were called by either side.
The clerk then called out jurors' numbers and impaneled them in the jury box. After the first 12 jurors were seated, the six alternate jurors included one black woman, two white women, two white men and one black man.
They were promptly escorted out of the room.
Gergel addressed the remaining potential jurors, who would now be dismissed from service after several rounds of selection.
"I noticed a little smile on some of your faces," he said, and thanked them for their service.
Last week, Roof represented himself as jurors were qualified for the jury pool before submitting a hand-written note asking for his counsel to take over for the next phase of the trial.
In all, the Eastover man faces 33 federal charges: nine counts of violating the Hate Crime Act resulting in death; three counts of violating the Hate Crime Act involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstruction of exercise of religion resulting in death, three counts of obstruction of exercise of religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Roof currently pleads not guilty, but his lawyers have offered a plead guilty several times if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Roof's attorneys said they wanted to hold off on the trial because of the publicity surrounding the mistrial in a former North Charleston police officer's case.
The motion stated the Michael Slager mistrial "declared less than 48 hours before the scheduled start of the trial in this case, is highly likely to create undue pressure on the jury to compensate for the judicial system's apparent failure to punish Mr. Slager by imposing a harsher punishment here."
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said he wouldn't allow other events to affect the progression of the trial.