Jury Selection Begins in the federal trial of Charleston church shooter

Jan 17, 2017

The second phase of jury selection starts today in the federal trial of Dylann Roof. He’s the white man charged with hate crimes in the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina church. If convicted, the federal government plans to seek a rare death penalty. 

Prosecutors say Dylann Roof is a self-avowed white supremacist who hoped the killings would start a race war. On the night of June 17, 2015, church surveillance video showed the then 21-year-old entering Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof was wearing a gray long sleeve shirt and dark pants when he joined the bible study where people reading the gospel of Mark, Chapter 4. After about an hour, he took a pistol out of his fanny pack and fired 80 times at the black parishioners.

One of the nine people he killed that night was 70-year-old Ethel Lance - Sharon Risher’s mother.

Risher zips open a wallet and removes a folded five dollar bill.

“Those bills was on her person," she said. "And I don’t know it is just me, there is some false something I’ve got in my brains about this that it brings me comfort.”

Risher is a reverend and was a trauma chaplain at a Dallas hospital for years. Since losing her mother, two cousins and childhood friend in the shootings, she has turned to God now more than ever before.

“I have prayed more than I have ever prayed in my life," she said. 

Risher does not believe in the death penalty. And a recent Pew Research poll indicates the country is split on the issue.  Support is even lower among black people. Less than a third believe it should be imposed when someone is convicted of murder. Robert Dunham is with the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that tracks and studies capital cases.

“You will be excluded from the jury if you say you have views against the death penalty such that you can’t impose it. That disproportionately excludes jurors of color," Dunham said. "And in a case like this it would be extremely important to have the views of the entire African-American community represented in that jury room.”

Dunham, whose organization is affiliated with one of the defense attorneys, says studies show a person is most likely to get the death penalty when the victims are white and the defendants are black. In this case the victims are black and the defendant is white. The white supremacist ideology prosecutors say Roof expressed when he committed this crime saw a resurgence last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported those groups increased by 14 percent in 2015.

The National Crime Victims Research and Treatment center at MUSC received a grant to help victims of the attack. Dr. Dean Kilpatrick is the director of the center.

The National Crime Victims Research and Treatment center at MUSC received a grant to help victims of the attack. Dr. Dean Kilpatrick is the director of the center.

He said the money will be used to improve therapy and, “Try to develop some materials that will not only be useful here but also to be of use elsewhere.”

After the shooting, pictures surfaced of Roof posing with Confederate flags. About a month later, that led the state of South Carolina to remove its Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds. The flag came down on Sharon Risher’s 58th birthday. She said it meant a lot that a symbol of slavery was finally removed after decades of trying. Risher plans to sit behind Roof in court for most of the trial.

“He is going to feel sitting in that court what all of us want him to feel," Risher said. "You thought you was getting ready to cause a race war, well guess what backfired! backfired!”

Regardless of the outcome of the federal case, Roof will be tried again for the church shootings in South Carolina court a few weeks later. State prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty.