CHARLESTON — Dylann Roof, the gunman who massacred nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, complained in court filings Thursday that too many witnesses are testifying about the anguish and horror the victims and their families during and after the shooting.
The motion where Roof objects to what’s known as victim impact testimony comes on the second day of the sentencing phase of his trial. Last month, he was convicted on 33 charges and now the jury will decide if he receives the death penalty or life in prison.
Prosecutors said they have prepared as many as 38 witnesses to deliver testimony to illustrate “the void” felt in these victims’ families in the wake of the tragedy.
Roof is continuing to act as his own attorney. But in a contentious courtroom exchange that happened Thursday during the jury’s morning break, David Bruck, Roof’s stand-by counsel, spoke on his client’s behalf calling the proceeding “a runaway freight train.”
Bruck revealed to Judge Gergel that he and his colleagues, not Roof, had drafted the motion to limit victim testimony on his behalf. And Bruck implored the judge to allow him to be able to object on Roof’s behalf — Gergel denied the request.
“I have to be heard on his behalf because he cannot do it,” Bruck begged the judge. “This man cannot protect his own rights. He cannot do it.”
Hoping to persuade the judge, Bruck added, “This is his sentencing not a memorial service.”
Prosecutor Jay Richardson said that he doesn’t believe that the government will call all 38 witnesses on their list, but added that Roof “is the one who chose to kill nine people…particularly good people!”
On Roof’s motion regarding victim impact, the Gergel told Roof he “appreciates” the issues he raised about the amount of victim impact testimony and said he is “monitoring this.”
On the first day, the government was only able to call its first four witnesses due to the length of each person’s time on the stand.
The testimony, for example, included Emanuel AME pastor Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s widow Jennifer recounting how her and her daughter hid in the church that night to survive the shooting. Witnesses have also detailed heartwarming tributes to their fallen loved ones.
Kylon Middleton, Pickney’s oldest friend, was the second witness called by the prosecution and during his testimony he had the courtroom in stitches.
An AME church minister himself, Middleton spoke with a booming and gregarious tone about the man he befriended when they were just 7 or 8 years-old who he just called “Pinckney.”
“He was very country and I was very city…I taught him a lot of tricks,” Middleton said, recounting the duo’s youth.
Almost everyone in the courtroom laughed along with the preacher, but not Roof.
At one point, lead prosecutor Jay Richardson considered interjecting to ask questions then decided that he was just going to let Middleton talk.
Another witness on the first day, Sen. Gerald Malloy, a junior senator to Pinckney in the South Carolina state legislature, described his colleague as “the absolute best senator.”
During Malloy’s testimony, the jury was shown a video of Sen. Pinckney speaking to a group of students inside Mother Emanuel in 2013. In the speech, Pinckney recounts history ranging from the early 1800s and the origin of the church to the Roman Empire. After the video ended, Malloy pointed out that Pinckney was working with no notes, calling him a “master of presentation.”
In his motion, Roof argues that showing this video was unnecessary.
“[M]uch of the testimony and evidence so far could have been summarized, rather than presented in so much detail,” the motion reads. “For example, a victim’s talent as a preacher may be described without showing a video of a prayer.”
Other witnesses have broken down in tears on the stand.
Anthony Thompson, whose wife of sixteen years, Myra Thompson, was killed in the massacre, openly wept. “My world was gone…what am I here for? There’s nothing left for me to do. The person I live for is gone,” Thompson testified.
And on Thursday morning, Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of victim DePayne Middleton Doctor, broke down as she told the jury that when she got the call about the shooting, "I dropped the phone and just started jumping." She was barely able to speak as she told them that she laid on the floor of her home for two hours after that, unable to move.
Roof’s motion cited several well-known capital trials in an attempt to sway the court that the amount of victim impact testimony is excessive.
He said that at the trial of Oklahoma city bomber Timothy McVeigh, there were 38 victim impact witnesses — the same number as Roof’s trial — despite the fact that in that incident there were 168 people who were killed.
At the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Roof’s motion says, 13 family members gave victim impact testimony and the transcript length of their entire testimony equalled that of the four witnesses that testified on day one of Roof’s sentencing phase.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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