CHARLESTON, S.C. — She recalled watching the young white man stroll into Bible study, thinking he just wanted to seek the word of God. He was handed a Bible and a worksheet about that Wednesday night’s lesson, the parable of the sower, and took a seat next to the pastor. He said nothing for nearly 45 minutes, hanging his head and waiting for the 12 parishioners to stand and close their eyes in benediction.
Then Felicia Sanders heard the first startling boom, she said, as Dylann S. Roof removed a Glock .45-caliber handgun from his fanny pack and methodically shot one African-American worshiper after the next, nine in all, starting with the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney.
Before it ended, 77 hollow-point rounds later, Ms. Sanders, the first witness to testify in Mr. Roof’s federal death penalty trial on Wednesday, found herself underneath a table muzzling her 11-year-old granddaughter so hard she feared she would suffocate her. Her wounded son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, had already fallen on one side of her; her aunt, Susie Jackson, 87, lay dead on the other. She rubbed her leg in the blood pooling on the linoleum floor so the gunman might think she and her granddaughter were dead.
As Mr. Roof made his way out of the church that unholy night, June 17, 2015, Mr. Sanders moved toward Ms. Jackson, begging for water because he could not breathe.
“When he reached Aunt Susie,” Ms. Sanders wailed from the witness stand, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, “he grabbed a handful of her hair and took his last breath. I watched my son come in this world and I watched my son leave this world.”
Ms. Sanders’s heart-rending account opened testimony in United States District Court after Mr. Roof’s lawyer began to argue for a sentence of life in prison for the 22-year-old avowed white supremacist. Faced with perhaps his only chance to persuade the jury to spare Mr. Roof’s life, the lawyer, David I. Bruck, used his opening statement to concede Mr. Roof’s guilt and suggest doubts about his stability.
“In fairness and in mercy, our society does not invoke the death penalty if there are reasons to choose life, a life in prison,” said Mr. Bruck, the leader of the court-appointed defense team that Mr. Roof plans to jettison during a second phase of the trial, when jurors will decide whether he should be executed. “We do not behave like the person who committed this crime.”
Mr. Roof, dressed in the striped uniform of the county jail, sat expressionless, staring down at the defense table, as he did throughout more than seven hours in court.
Earlier, the lead prosecutor, Julius N. Richardson, an assistant United States attorney, introduced each of the nine victims, showing the jurors their photographs, describing their lives and explaining how they came to gather in the church’s fellowship hall that night. But he spent much of his 49-minute opening statement emphasizing Mr. Roof’s deliberateness and premeditation.
“We will prove to you that the defendant’s attack was cold and calculating,” Mr. Richardson said. “It was done with malice in his heart, in his mind, racist retribution for perceived offenses against the white race.”
Mr. Richardson told the jury that the prosecution would prove that Mr. Roof was well aware of the historic church’s significance to the African-American community and that he intended the attack as a racial call to arms. Founded in 1818, the downtown church, known here as Mother Emanuel, is one of the oldest independent black congregations in the South and played central roles in the plotting of a failed slave revolt in 1822 and in civil rights activities 140 years later.