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Emotional Testimony Continues in Church Massacre Death Penalty Trial

Roof complained to the judge that some of the memories of victims 'would be better shared at my formal sentencing than in my capital trial.'
Image: Assistant U.S. District Attorney Richardson objects
Assistant U.S. District Attorney Richardson objects to defense counsel move to step in for Roof.Art Lien

For a second tearful day, and with many more such sessions to come, relatives and friends of people killed in a 2015 church massacre took the stand Thursday to speak of the lost lives as prosecutors sought to ensure that the killer, Dylann Roof, would be punished with death.

One victim's daughter wept and grew angry as she recalled learning about the June 17, 2015 attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Another victim's daughter broke down as she described her mother's hugs. A third victim's sister cried when prosecutors displayed family photos.

They were among 38 witnesses that the government said it plans to have testify to make the case for Roof's execution. The penalty phase of the trial began on Wednesday, and is expected to last about 10 days.

Related: At Dylann Roof Penalty Trial, Victims' Families Shift Focus From the Killer

Each of the witnesses have given highly emotional descriptions of victims, and several have wept before the jury.

One of the most emotional recollections came from Denise Quarles, daughter of Myra Thompson, one of the nine people Roof shot to death after inviting him to join their evening Bible study class.

Her memories of Thompson triggered tears, and then fury as she recalled learning that the killings had occurred in a sanctuary that had been integral to her family's life.

"For that to happen where I call home, it pisses me off," Denise Quarles said.

Denise Quarles, daughter of Myra Thompson, at the trial on Thursday.Art Lien

Quarles later shared a dream she had just before the attack in which her mother drowned. "I knew that was my mom letting me know something happened," Quarles said, crying again.

Several people in the packed courtroom in Charleston dabbed tears. Some got up and left.

The outburst prompted a complaint from Roof, who is representing himself in the trial's penalty phase, and a warning from U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel that the testimony had toed the line on what was legally acceptable.

Gergel told the jury that they could only consider the personal characteristics of the victim, and how their death impacted the witness — not the witness' feelings about the crime.

Roof, who was convicted by the same jury last month and has said he doesn't plan to call witnesses or present evidence to spare his life, submitted a motion — presumably with help from his standby defense attorney — that said there were too many witnesses and their testimony was "excessive."

Some of the memories of victims shared by loved ones "would be better shared at my formal sentencing than in my capital trial," Roof wrote.

Related: Dylann Roof Tells Jury: 'There Is Nothing Wrong With Me Psychologically'

Gergel then dismissed the jury and turned to prosecutors, asking how many more witnesses they planned to call — they'd submitted an initial list of 38 — and requested they be "efficient."

The judge said he would not deny any family members and friends the chance to speak, but he also had to make sure the testimony wasn't violating Roof's due process rights.

"The defense raises a good point that at some point it's going to be too much," Gergel said. "Our guiding light must be a fair process."

Roof's standby defense lawyer, David Bruck, grew frustrated, telling Gergel that Roof "cannot protect his own rights."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson shot back, "He's the one who chose to kill nine people."

Gergel denied Bruck's request to help Roof make objections, saying Roof had done a decent job so far.

Rita Whidbee, best friend of Sharonda Coleman-Middleton, at the trial on Thursday.Art Lien

The testimony continued with Rita Whidbee, a friend of victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Whidbee cried on the stand as the court played a recording of Coleman-Singleton speaking during a funeral a week before the shooting.

Coleman-Singleton's daughter came next. Cam'ryne Singleton cried hard as she recalled her mother's hugs. Singleton was followed by Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor. She, too, wept, after the court displayed photos of Middleton-Doctor.

Two of Middleton-Doctor's daughters, Gracyn Middleton-Doctor and Kaylin Doctor, remembered their mother's readiness to sacrifice for family and for people she didn't know.

Daniel Simmons Jr., son of the Rev. Daniel Simmons, recounted his panicked drive from Virginia to Charleston after the shooting, learning on the way that his father was going to die.

Roof did not object or ask any of them questions.