Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In South Carolina, Jury Selection To Begin In Church Shooting Trial


And in other news, there has been a surprising turn of events in the death penalty case of Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C. He is the young, white man accused of going into an historic black church last year and massacring nine worshippers. This morning, jury selection was suspended by the judge in the case just moments before it was set to begin. Instead, the judge will hold a closed-door hearing with Roof and his defense team. The reasons are still unknown. But earlier, we spoke to NPR's Debbie Elliott, who is following that trial in Charleston.

Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This was a truly shocking crime, gunning down people as they were reading the Bible. What are we likely to hear during the trial?

ELLIOTT: Well, this is the federal case against Dylann Roof, and federal prosecutors are going to try to show that he targeted Emanuel AME to start a race war. The setting here was significant. They are saying that Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist, picked the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South for this horrible crime. That church, of course, known as Mother Emanuel. He's facing 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, weapons charges and a charge of obstructing religion.

So if you recall, officials say the story was he was 21 years old at the time. He spent an hour with these people in Bible study and then methodically opened fire. Survivors say he told them quote, "y'all are raping our women and taking over the nation." He talked of being on a mission and told one survivor he was going to let her live so that she could tell the story of what happened. Nine people were killed, as you said, including the pastor of the church. Five others were in the church and survived, two of them children.

MONTAGNE: And obviously devastating for those survivors and also family members of the shooting victims, what are they saying about the start of the trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think they're ready to see justice done but they're also very ready to get this over with as well. I spent some time with Nadine Collier, her mother, Ethel Lance, was among those killed in the massacre. And you may remember that dramatic moment when family members of the victims attended Dylann Roof's first bond hearing, and they all talked about forgiving him. And she was one of those who was just very poignant. She said have mercy on your soul as she looked at him and spoke with him. Well, she's been to every single court hearing since then, and she'll be there for every day of the trial, she says, if she can. But really what she wants is for it all to end. Here's what she said.

NADINE COLLIER: You can't go nowhere unless you see - you hear about it. People talking about it. You see about it. It's everywhere you go. This have made history. But respect the family and let us grieve in our own way. You're not doing that. You're not - you're not.

ELLIOTT: As you hear there, Renee, the family members say they haven't had a chance to grieve. The problem is this is far from over. Jury selection is what's going to be going on for several weeks before the testimony gets underway. And then early next year, Roof will be on trial again on state murder charges, which also carry the death penalty. So the families and survivors are going to have to go through this all over again.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is unusual for the federal government in any event to seek the death penalty. It's been used in - at the - with the Boston Massacre - with the Oklahoma and Boston bombings. How has the Justice Department justified it here, given the state's also pursuing the death penalty?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said the nature of the crime justifies the punishment. But there's been some criticism because Roof's defense attorneys have said he would have pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. So critics, including civil rights groups and several newspapers and editorial boards, have said it's a waste of judicial resources. And it'll be hard on the victims. But the Justice Department cited, you know, factors including Roof's lack of remorse and his expressions of racial hatred as they tried to justify the death penalty.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charleston. Thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.