By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A South Carolina jury viewed graphic photos on Thursday of bullet-riddled bodies and cartridge cases left in the wake of the June 2015 attack on an historic black church, after a federal judge denied a mistrial for accused gunman Dylann Roof.
The hushed courtroom during the presentation of the crime scene evidence stood in contrast to the emotional testimony a day earlier by a survivor of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Lawyers for Roof, a 22-year-old avowed white supremacist, argued eyewitness Felicia Sanders had offered prejudicial and improper opinion on Wednesday, the first day of the trial, about what penalty Roof should face.
During her testimony, Sanders called the defendant “evil, evil as can be” for appearing to sit innocently through a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston before opening fire.
Sanders then told defense lawyer David Bruck during cross-examination that she was glad when Roof had said at the scene that he would kill himself after gunning down nine parishioners.
“There is no place left on earth for him except the pit of hell,” said Sanders, who survived with her 11-year-old granddaughter but lost her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, and aunt, Susie Jackson, 87.
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 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.
Jurors on Thursday also watched surveillance video that showed Roof entering a side door at the church at 8:16 p.m. on June 17, wearing a sweatshirt on a muggy day and a small pack around his waist that investigators said held his gun and ammunition.
He slipped back out of the building 51 minutes later with only the gun, Charleston Police Sergeant Dan English testified.
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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson told jurors during opening statements that Roof targeted the oldest African-American congregation in the southern United States, aiming to have his message of racial hate resonate across the country.
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 and Alan Crosby)