The crowd in the courtroom sat silently as Jennifer Pinckney detailed her ordeal in a calm, careful voice. It’s a story she’s told countless times; first to police and then to reporters. Now her story will help jurors decide the fate of the man who killed her husband.
Jennifer Pinckney doesn’t like the limelight. She once relished her supporting role, happily helping her high-profile husband, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He was not only the Pastor at historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, he proudly served in the South Carolina Legislature, first in the House and then the Senate. But Jennifer can no longer blend into the background. She’s been front and center since June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down 9 people attending a Bible Study at her church. Among those murdered, the love of her life…a “soul-stirring preacher”. Now her story, and those of the other survivors, is a thread in the fabric of yet another mass shooting in our country.
Like Jennifer, the city of Charleston has found itself in an unwanted spotlight. No city seeks fame from a tragedy that reeks of racism and hate, especially a city that thrives on tourism. I traveled to Charleston on a much-anticipated trip with my daughter. My sister and her daughter joined us for a rare reunion. My daughter needed to do research for her Ph.D. project. The rest of us jumped at the chance to see the sights and soak in the city’s southern hospitality.
When you’re a journalist, the big story always seems to beckon… even on vacation. The courthouse was close to the hotel, the trial was open to the public, so my sister and I decided to see go inside. We were ushered into one of the overflow courtrooms to watch on closed-circuit TV. The screen was split so you could see Roof on one side and Jennifer Picnkney testifying on the other. I tried to find some trace of emotion on Roof’s face as I stared at the screen. There was no evidence of empathy, no sign of emotion at all.
We weren’t able to watch the trial for long, but it was long enough to see Jennifer Pinckney on the stand and try to grasp the pain this mother of two young girls has endured. It was long enough to imagine the horror of hiding under a desk with your six year old, pleading with her to only speak in hushed tones as a madman murdered people you love in the next room. It was long enough to be moved to tears.
As I write this, I don’t know whether life in prison or the death penalty awaits Dylann Roof. No matter the punishment, I DO know hate and heartache go hand in hand. Folks in Charleston say the mass shooting has actually brought people from all walks of life closer in this community. They say rather than sparking racial strife, it has led to more understanding. Their motto is #CharlestonStrong. They will need that strength to continue healing. The faith of members of the Emaunel AME Church is certainly strong. On the witness stand, when asked why she thought her life had been spared, Jennifer Pinckney answered, “ I couldn’t see God taking both parents away from two small kids.”