Charleston Church Shooting Survivor Says She Prayed as Dylann Roof Gunned Down Parishioners

Roof is accused of killing nine people on June 17, 2015.

ByABC News
December 14, 2016, 12:31 PM

— -- The federal trial for Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old accused of killing nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, continued today with one of the three survivors of the deadly rampage taking the stand.

Polly Sheppard, 72, told the court of how Roof opened fire on her and her fellow parishioners as they stood to pray at the end of Bible study. Sheppard's emotional 911 call was also played in court.

Roof, who is white, is accused of fatally shooting nine black parishioners during a Bible study at the predominantly black Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. Roof allegedly entered the church armed and "with the intent of killing African-Americans engaged in the exercise of their religious beliefs," according to the federal indictment against him.

Roof was captured in North Carolina the day after the shooting.

Sheppard told the court that she chose to attend Emanuel because her husband was a third-generation member there. She said she was a member of the trustee board together with victim Myra Thompson.

On June 17, 2015, Sheppard said she went to the quarterly conference meeting at the church at 6 p.m. She told the court she planned to leave after the meeting, but ended up staying for Bible study that day because Thompson had asked her to.

Sheppard spoke fondly of the victims on the stand. "She sang like an angel," she said of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. She told the court that Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was working on a Ph.D. at the time of her death. "She could preach real well," Sheppard said. Cynthia Hurd loved to read and "was just a lovely person," while Susie Jackson sang in the choir and would do anything for you, said Sheppard.

That fateful day, Sheppard said she sat in the back of the room for Bible study, hoping to sneak out. When asked why she didn't, Sheppard said of Thompson, "She kept watching me."

Roof joined them, Sheppard told the court. Sheppard said that Rev. Clementa Pinckney asked Roof to sit beside him and gave him the lesson and Bible.

As Bible study ended, Sheppard said they planned to finish with a prayer and the benediction. They did not get to the benediction because Roof opened fire as they began praying, she said.

At first, she told the court, Sheppard thought it was an electrical problem. But then Felicia Sanders, one of the other survivors, screamed that it was a gun, she said. Sheppard said she saw Roof shoot Rev. Daniel Simmons, then she ducked under a table.

She told the court that she listened to the gunshots ring out as she hid. She said she saw the casings bounce and roll across the ground, and watched as Roof's boots came closer and closer. When Roof got to the tables, he told her to shut up as she was praying out loud, she said.

Then she said Roof asked her if she was shot. She told him no, she said, and he replied that he wouldn't shoot her. "I’m going to leave you alive to tell the story," Sheppard said Roof told her.

Sheppard said she saw victim Tywanza Sanders, Felicia Sanders' son, sit up and try to draw attention away from the living. He told Roof that none of them meant him any harm, but Roof responded that he had to kill them, Sheppard said. He then shot and killed Tywanza Sanders right at Sheppard's feet, she said.

After killing Tywanza Sanders, the gun clicked twice, which made Sheppard think it was empty, she said.

"My first thought was to call somebody," Sheppard said. She found Ethel Lance's phone covered in blood on the floor next to her and called 911, she said.

The call was played in court. In it, Sheppard can be heard sobbing and begging for help. "He's coming. He's coming. He's coming. Please!" she tells the dispatcher. In the background, moaning can be heard.

"There’s so many people dead," Sheppard says in the call. The dispatcher then tells her to be quiet.

The defense declined to cross-examine Sheppard.

Earlier, the prosecution called Erin Presnell, the head forensic pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, who performed all nine autopsies on the victims. Presnell testified that each victim was shot multiple times.

The prosecution rested its case once Sheppard was done speaking.

Roof told the judge that he did not want to testify, and the defense called zero witnesses before it, too, rested.

Closing arguments are slated for Thursday, then the jury will begin deliberations.

The 33 federal counts against Roof include hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of exercise of religion resulting in death. If convicted, Roof faces the death penalty.

Roof has pleaded not guilty.

He also faces a state trial, set for early next year, in which he may also face the death penalty.