The vivid testimony of Felicia Sanders, one of three survivors of the 2015 Charleston church massacre, was perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all on the opening day of Dylann Roof’s federal death penalty trial.
As a gunman continued to execute members of her Bible study group at Emanuel AME church, Sanders lay on the blood-soaked floor between two of the people she loved most in the world, her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, and her beloved aunt, 87-year-old Susie Jackson.
As their blood flowed beneath her, Sanders clutched her 11-year-old granddaughter to her so tightly she feared she would choke the life out her, she testified.
“I grabbed my granddaughter. She said ‘Granny, I’m so scared. I’m scared,’” Sanders said, her voice breaking as she continued.
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“I said, ‘Just play dead. Just play dead,' so I muzzled her face to my body so tight because I didn’t want her to make a sound,” Sanders said. “It sounded almost like a machine gun.”
Sanders was the lead witness in what is expected to be a weeks-long trial, and assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson used her account as a way to take the jury back to the night of June 17, 2015, when a young white man showed up at the African-American church’s regular Wednesday night Bible study. Twelve people were there. Nine would be dead within the hour. Sanders and her granddaughter lived.
Sanders’ story is the most detailed account yet of what happened that night, killings Richardson said were motivated by Roof’s fixation on white supremacy.
“Who came in?” Richardson asked Sanders, as a somber, attentive jury watched.
“That defendant, sitting right over there,” Sanders said, pointing out Roof, who was dressed in a jail jump suit and stared straight ahead and down.
“When he came in, he asked if we were having Bible study, and we said yes,” she testified. Emanuel pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney gave Roof, then 21, a Bible and a piece of paper. The stranger sat with them for 45 minutes as the group continued, unaware that Roof was carrying a 45-caliber pistol loaded with 11 hollow-point bullets and an additional seven magazines with 11 bullets each.
“He just sat there the whole time – evil, evil, evil as can be!” testified Sanders.
When the group bowed their heads to pray, Sanders testified, Roof shot Pinckney first, then started shooting the others, who dove for the floor.
The second person shot was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74, who jumped up and went toward the fallen Pinckney, shouting, “'Let me check my pastor. I need to check my pastor!’” Sanders said. “Bullets started flying, and Rev. Simmons went down.”
As the shots continued, and Roof advanced on Polly Sheppard, Tywanza Sanders rose from the floor.
“He was saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Felicia Sanders recalled. “'We don’t mean you no harm.’”
At that point, Roof told her son, “'I have to do this because you are raping our women and you are taking over our world,’” Sanders testified.
And then, she said, Roof “put about five bullets in him.”
Minutes later, as her son lay dying, he looked up at her. “I said, ‘I love you, Tywanza.’ He said, ‘I love you too, mom' … and I watched him take his last breath. I watched my son come into this world, and I watched my son leave this world.”
At that point, Sanders began sobbing, and Judge Richard Gergel called a recess.
Earlier, in an opening statement to the jury, Richardson told the jury that Roof made numerous choices over a period of months in early 2015 as he developed a hatred toward the American flag and a love for white supremacist symbols such as the Confederate battle flag.
During early 2015, he bought a Glock, numerous bullets and magazines, did target practice, wrote a white supremacist racial manifesto and advocated for whites to take their country back. He developed an infatuation with Nazi symbols, such as the swastika.
Roof’s lead lawyer, nationally known capital defense attorney David Bruck, spoke softly to the jury, telling members that Roof wasn’t going to deny his guilt in the matter and there would be very little cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. The trial is really about whether the jury will give life in prison without parole or death, Bruck said.
More than six times, Bruck attempted to tell the jurors that Roof was a seriously deluded young man, and that they should not give him death.
Each time, Richardson objected strenuously, telling the judge that Bruck was trying to get to matters that are out of bounds during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial.
Each time, Gergel sustained the objection, once scolding Bruck for straying.