Dylann Roof planned the killing of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, months in advance, federal prosecutors told a jury in opening statements Wednesday.
Roof faces 33 federal counts of hate crimes for fatally shooting nine members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015.
“He chose to execute nine good, innocent men and women, and he chose to do so out of a callous hatred of the color of their skin,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Julius Richardson said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Roof’s court appointed attorney David Bruck did not deny any of the facts presented by the prosecution, instead focusing on his motivation.
“You will see a crime that is driven by fear,” Bruck said.
The Associated Press reported that Bruck was setting the stage to argue for a life sentence instead of the death penalty, which prosecutors are seeking.
Lawyers also warned the jurors, of whom nine are white and three black, that the trial would be particularly difficult because of the stark and gruesome nature of the crimes.
Law enforcement officials said the 22-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist stayed through a prayer session at the church before pulling out his gun and shooting his victims while they were praying.
After the shooting, photographs on social media emerged of Roof posing with the Confederate flag. He also allegedly wrote a manifesto of racial hatred that he posted online.
The opening statements in Roof’s trial come as racial tensions in Charleston remain high after a judge declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager. Slager, a white Charleston police officer, shot and killed an unarmed black man during a traffic stop last year.
Roof’s attorneys requested the trial be postponed in the wake of the mistrial, citing fears that the mistrial would influence the jurors’ outlook on Roof’s case.
Roof plans to represent himself in the penalty phase of the trial after the judge in the case granted him the right to do so.
In addition to the federal charges, Roof will face state charges in a separate trial.