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

To many in the courtroom, Dylann Roof’s message — however muddled and incomplete — was beside the point. Witnesses, instead, focused on the victims.
Image: Rev. Clementa Pinckney and family.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney and family.USDC - District of South Carolina

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The convicted mass murderer was soft-spoken and delivered no apology as he addressed jurors directly for the first time Wednesday during the penalty phase of his federal murder trial.

But to many in the courtroom, Dylann Roof’s message — however muddled and incomplete — was beside the point. Friends and family of Roof’s nine victims testified in hopes of focusing attention on the lives lost, not the killer.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney and wife Jennifer Pinckney.USDC - District of South Carolina

Jennifer Pinckney's husband, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was killed by Roof during the June 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston that left nine people dead. She told the jury that her husband of 16 years was a beloved father of two daughters. “He was a big kid at heart,” she said. He loved to dance and to travel, and the family had been planning a trip to New Orleans, Pinckney said.

Pinckney told the jury her husband, a longtime South Carolina state senator, was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and she recalled how she once bought him tickets to a game against the Atlanta Falcons that he relished.

“We always had a date night,” she testified. “We loved going to the movies.”

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State Sen. Gerald Malloy was Pinckney’s personal lawyer and colleague in the senate. “It’s not about what Mr. Roof does at this point, Mr. Roof performed his act on June 17,” he told NBC News in an interview following his testimony. “It’s about who Clementa Pinckney was.”

Rev. Anthony Thompson was married to shooting victim Myra Thompson. He sobbed on the witness stand as he remembered the love of his life.

"She was everything I had,” Thompson said. “Everything I ever wanted. And my life will never be the same."

During his opening statement, prosecutor Nathan Williams listed Roof’s many victims and the loved ones they left behind. He warned jurors that what they would hear might be difficult to process.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney and family.USDC - District of South Carolina

Prosecutors played a video of Pinckney speaking at church and a voice recording of him reaching out to comfort a friend with cancer.

Rev. Kylon Middleton, Rev. Pinckney’s childhood friend, also testified. He told the jury how the two childhood friends had bonded because the of their unusual first names.

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Middleton recalled his friend's big dreams and Pinckney's potential to have even been South Carolina’s first African-American governor.

“Pinckney was larger than life,” he said. “It is such a shame that we would never know what he would have become.”

"Today in court it really hit home that these people had friends and families, and they were so loved,” Middleton told NBC News.