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Dylann Roof Death Penalty Trial Poses Challenging Second Phase Of Jury Selection

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dylann Roof heads back to court tomorrow. Roof is the white man accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, S.C. Roof will be in court for the second phase of jury selection. If convicted, prosecutors plan to seek a rare death penalty. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin reports.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: Prosecutors say Dylann Roof is a self-avowed white supremacist who hoped the killings would start a race war. On the night of June 17, 2015, church surveillance showed the then-21-year-old entering Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof was wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt and dark pants when he joined the Bible study, where people were reading the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 4. After an hour, he took a pistol out of his fanny pack and fired about 80 times at the black parishioners.

One of the nine people killed that night was 70-year-old Ethel Lance, Sharon Risher's mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALLET UNZIPPING)

OLGIN: Risher zips open a wallet and removes a folded $5 bill.

SHARON RISHER: Those bills was on her person. And it - I don't know. It's just me maybe. There is some false something I've got in my brains about this, but it brings me comfort.

OLGIN: She is a reverend and was a trauma chaplain at a Dallas hospital for years. Since losing her mother, two cousins and a childhood friend in the shootings, she's turned to God now more than ever before.

RISHER: I have prayed more than I have ever prayed in my life.

OLGIN: Risher does not believe in the death penalty. And a recent Pew Research poll indicates the country is split on the issue. Support is even lower among black people. Less than a third believe it should be imposed when a person is convicted of murder. Robert Dunham is with the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that tracks and studies capital cases.

ROBERT DUNHAM: You will be excluded from the jury if you say that you have views against death penalty such that you can't impose it. That disproportionately excludes jurors of color. And in a case like this, it would be extremely important to have the views of the entire African-American community represented in that jury room.

OLGIN: Dunham, whose organization is affiliated with one of the defense attorneys, says studies show a person is most likely to get the death penalty when the victims are white and the defendants are black. After the shooting, pictures surfaced of Roof posing with Confederate flags. About a month later, that led the state of South Carolina to remove its Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.

The flag came down on Sharon Risher's 58th birthday. She says it meant a lot that a symbol of slavery was finally removed after decades of trying. Risher plans to sit behind Roof in court for most of the trial.

RISHER: He's going to feel, sitting in that court, what all of us want him to feel - want you to know that you caused more. You thought you was getting ready to cause a race war? Well, guess what. Backfired. Backfired.

OLGIN: Regardless of the outcome of the federal case, Roof will be tried again for the church shootings in South Carolina court a few weeks later. State prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.