DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Convicted South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof is back in court this week. He's representing himself for the sentencing phase of his federal hate crimes trial. The 22-year-old white supremacist faces the death penalty for killing nine black worshipers at Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church in hopes of starting a race war.
NPR's Debbie Elliott has been covering this trial and joins us now from Charleston. Deb, good morning.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: This is a crime that, all along, I think people have just struggled to really understand. I guess, now, Dylann Roof - I mean, you're hearing from him in court during this phase. Anything from him that can tell us more about what motivated him?
ELLIOTT: Not really. During his brief opening statement, yesterday, he gave a very short presentation, very quietly addressed jurors directly for the first time. He only said, there's nothing wrong with me. And he asked them to forget what his lawyers had said during the guilt phase of the trial. What's interesting is that he did not ask the jury to spare his life. And that's what's on the line here, you know, as he's defending himself during the sentencing phase whether he'll be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
GREENE: Well, it's on the line because the U.S. Justice Department says, I mean, this horrific crime justifies the death penalty. And I guess the Justice Department is actually going to be providing testimony, making the argument that that's what should happen here. Is that right?
ELLIOTT: Right. And thus far, they've been trying to show that by showing the impact of this massacre, that it robbed families - nine families of their loved ones, and that these people were really vital to the Charleston community - teachers, preachers, church matriarchs, a city librarian, people like Myra Thompson.
She was a retired teacher who had just become a pastor and was actually leading Bible study that night at Emanuel Church. Her husband, the Reverend Anthony Thompson, gave emotional testimony, yesterday, about their plans for the future. They were going to move closer to the grandkids, both of them going to pursue their ministries. And he tearfully described how lost he feels without her.
Now, the first witness was Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Emanuel pastor Clementa Pinckney. She was actually in the church the night Dylann Roof opened fire in the Bible study. She was just next door in the church office hiding under the desk with her 6-year-old daughter. She described putting her hand over the child's mouth to keep quiet. They feared for their life. Prosecutors then played this video of Reverend Pinckney who was also a state senator. He was giving this lecture about the history of the church. Let's listen a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: Well, again, let me welcome you to Mother Emanuel. Just a little story about our church and how it really ties into the life of African-Americans in South Carolina and also a little bit in the nation.
ELLIOTT: Now, that's the very history that prosecutors say drew Dylann Roof to commit the crime at that church so it would have the biggest impact.
GREENE: So this phase is really about, I mean, presenting the pain and devastating loss, not new evidence. Or will there be some new evidence?
ELLIOTT: You know, they're going to try to introduce some new writings from Dylann Roof in which he wrote six weeks after the crime in jail, and he expressed no regret.
GREENE: OK. That's NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting in Charleston, S.C.
Deb, thanks a lot.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.