WASHINGTON (AFP) - The death penalty trial of self-described white supremacist Dylann Roof got underway Wednesday (Dec 7), with US federal prosecutors saying he had gunned down nine African American churchoers last year in a coldly calculated attack, local media reported.
Assistant US Attorney Jay Richardson told the court in Charleston, South Carolina that Roof scouted the historic church and stockpiled ammunition during a months-long effort to plan the June 17, 2015 massacre.
"He hoped to send a message to other white people to stand up and do something."
The Post and Courier newspaper quoted Richardson as telling the 12 jurors chosen earlier in the day along with six alternates.
Richardson said Roof chose the historic "Mother Emanuel" church - the oldest African Methodist Episcopal place of worship in the US South - precisely because of its importance to the African American community. The church has strong links to the fight against slavery and segregation.
The authorities found chilling evidence of Roof's apparent neo-Nazi leanings on a website believed to be his. He espoused racist views and posed for photos with firearms and the Confederate battle flag.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to put Roof to death, and have refused to accept his offer to plead guilty to the 33 federal charges against him - including hate crime violations that could carry the death penalty - in exchange for a life sentence.
Roof, 22, is also facing state murder charges in South Carolina, though that separate trial is not due to begin until Jan 17. State prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty.
The jurors include two black women, eight white women, one white man and one black man. Among the six alternates are one black woman, two white women, two white men and one black man.
As jury questioning began last week, Roof asked to represent himself, a request that US District Judge Richard Gergel accepted.
Roof then asked brief questions for five days, while wearing his grey striped prison jumpsuit. His former defense team passed him notes.
But over the weekend, Roof made a reversal and asked Gergel in a handwritten note to reinstate his defense attorneys, though only for the guilt phase of the trial.
Death penalty cases are usually divided into two parts: the guilt phase - to establish guilt - and the sentencing phase, which concerns whether the defendant should be put to death or sentence to life in prison.
The proceedings could last weeks.
Roof's attorneys had sought to delay the start of the trial, due to a mistrial being declared in another racially charged South Carolina case - in which white police officer Michael Slager was accused of murdering unarmed black man Walter Scott fleeing from a traffic stop.
Both trials come during a year riddled with high-profile police shootings of African Americans that have inflamed racial tensions across the country.