AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The federal hate crimes trial against Dylann Roof began today in South Carolina. He's the man prosecutors say killed nine worshippers at a historic black church last year. They say Roof wanted to start a race war.
NPR's Debbie Elliott was in court today. She joins us now from outside the federal courthouse in Charleston. And Debbie, I understand it was actually a rather dramatic day of opening testimony, and a survivor took the witness stand. What happened?
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, first up it was. It was very raw and emotional testimony from Felicia Sanders. She is a member of Emanuel AME Church who was part of the Bible study group that met on Wednesday nights, and her son and her aunt were killed in the attack. She was fighting tears a good bit of the time. She pointed to Dylann Roof as the young white man who had shown up for Bible study last year - quote, "someone we thought was coming for the Lord but who was as evil as can be."
She talked about how when they all stood up for the closing prayer, gunfire erupted. At that point, she ducked under the table, cowering with her 11-year-old granddaughter who was with her, and she described feeling the blood of her mortally-wounded son and aunt who were on either side of her. Sanders says she then muzzled her granddaughter really tightly to her body in hopes that Roof would not target the little girl.
And then Sanders described watching as her son Tywanza asked Roof why he was doing this; why? She said Roof responded, quote, "y'all raping our women, and y'all are taking over the world." At this point, she's crying on the stand. She said, quote, "I watched my son come into this world, and I watched my son leave this world."
CORNISH: And this is very clearly difficult testimony. I mean did Dylann Roof's lawyers actually cross-examine her?
ELLIOTT: Yes. It was very brief. You know, that is something that's very difficult to do when you have someone who is a victim of something this horrible. Defense attorney David Bruck asked if Roof had said anything to her about what he was planning to do, and she replied, he said he was going to kill himself. And then she went on to say, there is no place on Earth for him except the pit of hell.
Now, throughout all of this dramatic testimony, Roof is mostly just staring straight ahead, expressionless. Sometimes he would glance down at some papers. He's still dressed in his gray-striped prison jumpsuit. And at one point, Mrs. Sanders called him out for not looking at her.
CORNISH: Now, what's the overall strategy of Dylann Roof's defense team?
ELLIOTT: Well, in opening statements, attorney David Bruck told the jury he's not disputing that his client committed these heinous crimes. He said he wanted them to instead consider why. What was it that made this 22-year-old man hate black people so much?
And it appears to be a strategy that's more geared toward what's next in this trial. Should Roof be found guilty? That will be the penalty phase, and prosecutors, as you know, are seeking the death penalty. Roof has said he wants to represent himself at that point, so I think this is his lawyers' attempt to try to get in what they can before that phase.
CORNISH: And in the meantime, how's the federal government laying out its case?
ELLIOTT: So far, we've had the testimony of Ms. Sanders and then police officers who responded to the case. Next should be how prosecutors say Roof planned this and targeted this church, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, because of its significance in the black community. His goal, they say, was to deepen longstanding racial divisions.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charleston, S.C. Debbie, thank you.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.