CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Quivering with fear beneath a desk, Jennifer Pinckney and her 6-year-old daughter held each other tight and placed their hands over each other’s mouths.
Silence was essential. A killer was stalking the church basement just outside the office in which they were hiding, firing gunshot after gunshot.
During a break in the rampage, Pinckney heard the killer speak to one of his victims.
“I’m not crazy,” he said, separated from Pinckney by a locked door. “I have to do this.”
Eighteen months later, the killer repeated that same sentiment to a jury considering whether he should be put to death or imprisoned for life as punishment for the massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015.
“There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” Dylann Roof told a jury Wednesday at his trial at the Charleston Federal Courthouse, where he has elected to serve as his own attorney.
Roof, 22, was convicted in December of 33 charges related to the killings, including firearm crimes, religious obstruction crimes, and hate crimes. Prior to the church massacre, he had published a racist online manifesto and posed in assorted pictures with a gun and Confederate flags.
Since being arrested in North Carolina a day after the shooting in June 2015, Roof confessed to the killings and told police he had hoped to start a “race war” with his actions. Instead the bloodbath spurred South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse and inspired numerous vigils around Charleston to promote racial harmony and unity. During Roof’s bond hearing two days after the shooting, several relatives of his victims told him in court they forgave him.
“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed during the attack.
But while some relatives of victims have expressed forgiveness and are not keen on Roof receiving the death penalty, other relatives and the federal government believe the defendant, who has twice been declared mentally competent to stand trial, should be executed for his crimes.
“The murder of anyone person is horrific…this case is worse,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams told the jury in his own opening statement on Wednesday. “It is worse because it wasn’t just one person…he killed nine people…It is worse because of the reason he killed those people. He killed them because of the color of their skin, because he thought they were less than people.”
Advocating for the death penalty, the government followed the opening statements by calling its first witness, Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and one of three adult survivors of the shooting rampage.
After describing how she met her late husband, Jennifer Pinckney testified about the horrors of that evening and how she survived the tragedy in which her husband perished.
Pinckney explained that she and her youngest daughter, Malana, had accompanied the reverend to church that evening. While her husband handled church business and led Bible study in a nearby room in the church basement, Jennifer Pinckney typed on a laptop in the pastor’s study while her daughter watched a cartoon.
Their activities, said Pinckney, were soon interrupted by loud sounds: “Pop, pop, pop.”
Pinckney wondered if a generator had exploded, unaware that her husband had just been shot and killed at point blank range as he stood to pray, the first of Roof’s victims. She rose to investigate the noise, grabbing a door handle to leave the room, but then quickly abandoned the plan, realizing the noises she had heard were actually gunshots.
She took her hand off the door handle and grabbed her daughter. Retreating to a secretary’s office beside the pastor’s study, she shoved her daughter under a desk, closing and locking a door behind them.
Gunshots continued to ring throughout the basement.
To impress upon her daughter the seriousness of their predicament, the gentle mother suddenly turned fierce.
“I just got real firm with her,” said Pinckney. “‘Shut up, don’t say anything, you’ve got to be quiet.’”
Pinckney contemplated making a run for help. She instructed her daughter to stay put and to pass along a message of love to the Pinckneys’ other daughter, Eliana, who had stayed home with her grandmother that evening.
“Tell your sister that I love her,” said Jennifer Pinckney.
More gunshots sounded. Bullets ripped through walls and entered the office. Pinckney dived under the desk with her daughter.
“Momma, is Daddy going to die?” asked Malana.
“Be quiet,” said her mother. “Don’t say anything.”
Jennifer Pinckney grabbed a cellphone lying on top of the desk but was unable to use it to call for help.
More gunshots blasted through the basement.
“Shh, shh, shh,” Jennifer Pinckney told her daughter in a panic, putting her hand over Malana’s mouth.
The 6-year-old reciprocated the gesture, covering her mother’s mouth with her small hand. Mother and daughter shook with fear.
Jennifer Pinckney heard sounds of people running outside the room, and then heard Roof speak, claiming not to be crazy.
Then Roof tried to open the door to the room concealing the mother and daughter.
“A chill completely went over me,” testified Jennifer Pinckney, “I felt, ‘This is it for us.’”
But instead of trying to burst through the locked office door, Roof left the church, a door chime indicating his exit.
Pinckney soon mustered the courage to leave the desk and locate her husband’s cellphone in the office. She called 911 and stayed on the line until police arrived and knocked the office door down, entering with guns drawn.
As the police helped the surviving Pinckneys leave the church, a female officer told Malana they would play a game with two simple rules: Malana would bury her face in the officer’s shoulder and shut her eyes tight.
“I’m just gonna carry you out of here. Just keep your eyes closed,” the officer said as she whisked Malana out of the church.
Jennifer Pinckney followed her daughter, stepping over pools of blood as she left, convinced her husband had died.
On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson asked Jennifer Pinckney why she thought she and her daughter escaped without physical harm.
“Wasn’t my time or my daughter’s time,” said Jennifer Pinckney. “God is a just God and I don’t see God taking both parents away from two small kids. Malana and I could also have been victims and gotten killed, and Eliana would have lost both her parents and her sister.”
Acting as his own attorney, Roof elected not to cross-examine Jennifer Pinckney, nor the two friends of Clementa Pinckney who followed the widow on the witness stand. He spent much of the court proceedings staring straight ahead, without emotion, even when the rest of the courtroom erupted in laughter a handful of times during witnesses’ lighthearted recollections of Pinckney and his quirks.
Following the testimony concerning Clementa Pinckney, prosecutors called to the stand the Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of shooting victim Myra Thompson. He is the fourth of 38 possible witnesses prosecutors may call as they seek to inform the jury about the nine lives that Roof extinguished.
The sentencing phase of Roof’s trial continues Thursday.