South Carolina

Defense focuses on penalty, not guilt in church shooting

The attorneys defending Dylann Roof in the Charleston church shooting trial are largely conceding his guilt in the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. Their attention is on keeping their client out of the death chamber.

As Roof's federal death penalty trial on 33 counts, including hate crimes, got underway Wednesday, defense attorney David Bruck said the facts are largely undisputed.

He said that during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, the defense would likely call few witnesses and not have many questions for those the government calls. The real question, he told the jury during his opening statements, is whether Roof "should be sent to prison with no possibility of release ever or should he be executed."

The sentence would be decided by the jury during a second sentencing phase if Roof is convicted.

The defense has said the 22-year-old Roof is willing to plead guilty if the death penalty is taken off the table. They have made a similar offer in state court where Roof is charged with nine counts of murder and faces another death penalty trial next year.

The prosecution, which contends Roof singled out the historic church and shot the parishioners during a Bible study in June, 2015 to start a race war.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson told the jurors they will see a confession that Roof signed and a manifesto he posted on the internet that shows the defendant posing with the Confederate flag and a burning American flag.

The prosecution, which continues its case Thursday, has already called seven witnesses — a survivor of the shooting as well as police and fire personnel who responded to the scene. The defense did not cross-examine five of them.

The survivor, Felicia Sanders, told the racially diverse jurors about the horror of seeing her son and her aunt shot and killed. She sheltered with her granddaughter beneath a table and told the child to play dead.

At one point, she looked across the courtroom toward Roof and called him "evil, evil, evil."

Bruck asked her on cross-examination whether she remembered Roof saying anything in the aftermath of the shootings.

"He said he was going to kill himself," she replied. "I was counting on that. There's no place on Earth for him other than the pit of hell."