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No mistrial for Dylann Roof after church shooting survivor calls him 'evil'

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday denied a mistrial for accused white South Carolina gunman Dylann Roof, who a day earlier was described as "evil" in testimony by a survivor of the deadly June 2015 attack on a historic blac...

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Dylann Roof is seen in this June 18, 2015 handout booking photo provided by Charleston County Sheriff's Office. Courtesy of Charleston County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday denied a mistrial for accused white South Carolina gunman Dylann Roof, who a day earlier was described as "evil" in testimony by a survivor of the deadly June 2015 attack on a historic black church.

Lawyers for Roof, 22, argued eyewitness Felicia Sanders had offered prejudicial and improper opinion about what penalty he should face.

During her testimony on Wednesday, the first day of Roof's trial, she called the defendant "evil, evil as can be" for appearing to sit innocently through a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston before opening fire.

Sanders then told defense lawyer David Bruck during cross-examination that she was glad when Roof had said at the scene that he would kill himself after gunning down nine parishioners.

"There is no place left on earth for him except the pit of hell," said Sanders, who survived with her 11-year-old granddaughter but lost her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, and aunt, Susie Jackson, 87.

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On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said he viewed Sanders' comments as a religious statement and not an opinion about sentencing. He refused to strike her testimony.

The defense motion for a mistrial filed on Thursday also said Roof's grief-stricken mother collapsed in court after opening statements concluded on Wednesday and was admitted to a hospital with a heart attack.

Jurors on Thursday watched surveillance video that showed Roof entering a side door at the church at 8:16 p.m. on June 17, wearing a sweatshirt on a muggy day and a small pack around his waist that investigators said held his gun and ammunition.

He slipped back out of the building 51 minutes later with only the gun, Charleston Police Sergeant Dan English testified.

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Roof if he is convicted of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations stemming from the church massacre.

As the trial began on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson characterized Roof as a white supremacist who targeted the oldest African-American congregation in the southern United States in order to have his message of hate and racial retaliation resonate across the country.

Roof faces murder charges in state court, where prosecutors also are seeking the death penalty.

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