A federal judge on Thursday denied a mistrial for accused white South Carolina gunman Dylann Roof, who a day earlier was described as “evil” in testimony by a survivor of the deadly June 2015 attack on a historic black church.
Lawyers for Roof, 22, argued eyewitness Felicia Sanders had offered prejudicial and improper opinion about what penalty he should face. During her testimony on Wednesday, the first day of Roof’s trial, she said Roof sat through a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and described him as “evil, evil as can be”
During cross-examination, Sanders told defense lawyer David Bruck that Roof had said at the scene that he planned to kill himself after gunning down nine parishioners. His suicide plan made her glad, she told Bruck.
“There is no place left on earth for him except the pit of hell,” Sanders said.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said he viewed Sanders’ comments as a religious statement and not an opinion about sentencing. He refused to strike her testimony.
The defense motion for a mistrial filed on Thursday also said Roof’s grief-stricken mother collapsed in court after opening statements concluded on Wednesday and was admitted to a hospital with a heart attack.
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Roof if he is convicted of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations stemming from the church massacre.
As the trial began on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson characterized Roof as a white supremacist who targeted the oldest African-American congregation in the southern United States in order to have his message of hate and racial retaliation resonate across the country.
The retelling of the horror that unfolded inside the church by both the prosecutor and Sanders made for a dramatic first day of the trial.
The motion noted that many court spectators, members of both the prosecution and defense teams and some jurors cried while Sanders, 59, was on the witness stand. She and her 11-year-old granddaughter survived the attack, but her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, and aunt, Susie Jackson, 87, did not.
Roof faces murder charges in state court, where prosecutors also are seeking the death penalty.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)