In an extraordinary display of grief and forgiveness, relatives of people killed in a shooting at a storied black church here addressed the suspect in court Friday, one after another offering an emotional mix of blessings and pleas for peace.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” Felicia Sanders told Dylann Roof, the suspect in a mass shooting that officials have called racially motivated. She was in the church when the gunman fatally shot nine people, including her son, Tywanza, and Sanders survived by pretending to be dead.
“You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I'll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero.”
But like some of the others, she added, “May God have mercy on you.”
Nadine Collier, the daughter of another victim, Ethel Lance, her voice choked with sobs, said: “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”
Roof, 21, who is white, was charged Friday with nine counts of murder and one count of criminal possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. All of the victims in the shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were black.
Law enforcement officials said that after he was arrested Thursday, he said he had just done something big in Charleston, and the .45-caliber pistol believed to have been used in the shooting was recovered from his car.
The Charleston Police Department had circulated images of a suspect, taken by a security camera at the church, and it was members of Roof’s own family who named him as the man in the pictures, according to the arrest warrant, which was released Friday.
“The father and uncle of the defendant contacted CPD and positively identified the defendant and his vehicle as those they saw in the photographs,” the warrant said, referring to the Charleston Police Department.
In Roof’s first, brief court hearing, Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. set bail at $1 million on the gun charge but explained that he did not have the authority to set bail on the murder charges, which would be handled by the state’s Circuit Court. The defendant watched impassively on a video link from a nearby jail, flanked by two guards, as the judge invited victims’ relatives to speak.
“I’m a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I’m very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of one of the dead, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “She taught me we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.”
Roof spoke only when questioned by the magistrate, confirming his address in the town of Eastover, giving his age and stating that he is unemployed.
A growing number of officials, including Gov. Nikki R. Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the mass killing a hate crime, with the governor and others calling for the death penalty. It remained to be seen whether state or federal prosecutors would pursue hate crime charges.
“It’s certainly a hate crime,” Graham told WCBD, the local NBC television station, on Friday. “These people would not be dead today if they weren’t black.”
Law enforcement officials briefed on the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly about it, said Roof told officers that he had committed some important act in Charleston. Officials have also said he hoped to start a race war.
Witnesses said the gunman walked into the church and joined a Bible study session, sitting next to the pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a state senator. First the gunman listened, witnesses said, then he argued, and eventually he began ranting against black people, and after nearly an hour there, he stood, drew a gun and fired, reloading as many as five times.
He fatally shot six women and three men, ranging in age from 26 to 87. Among the dead was Pinckney.
“All victims were hit multiple times,” the arrest warrant says, and before leaving, the gunman stood over a witness “and uttered a racially inflammatory statement to the witness.”
“This was a racial hate crime, and must be treated as such,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said Friday in Charleston, adding that investigators should be asking whether the gunman was part of a larger hate group. “This was an act of racial terrorism.”
Roof had an unsettled personal life - he had been arrested twice this year, and friends said he sometimes slept in his car - and a recent history of anti-black views. But law enforcement officials said he was not on their radar as someone who posed a serious threat of violence.
“This is an absolute hate crime,” Haley said on Friday on NBC’s Today show. “We absolutely will want him to have the death penalty. This is the worst hate that I’ve seen and that the country has seen in a long time.”
Greg Mullen, the chief of police in Charleston, has also called the shooting a hate crime, and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility.
President Barack Obama on Friday reiterated his call for new gun controls, speaking at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in San Francisco, saying that a shift in public opinion was needed to force Congress to act.
“Every country has unstable, hateful people,” he said. “What’s different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns.”
Roof’s family released a statement Friday saying that “words cannot express our shock, grief, and disbelief as to what happened that night” but gave no insight into the defendant’s state of mind or racial views.
The police arrested Roof some 200 miles away in Shelby, North Carolina, at 10:49 a.m. Thursday. He waived extradition and was whisked away under heavy guard, wearing a bulletproof vest, arriving at the Charleston County Jail, in a striped uniform, in a convoy of police vehicles, at about 7:30 p.m.
A handful of onlookers joined a crowd of journalists outside the jail. Hikaym Rivers, 15, gripped a sign, its letters handwritten in black ink: “Your evil doing did not break our community! You made us stronger!”
At Emanuel AME, on Calhoun Street, scores of bouquets rested on the sidewalk, along with wreaths and a simple wooden cross. Gold, silver and white balloons were tied to the church’s ironwork; nearby, nine white ribbons, each bearing the name of a victim, were tied to a fence.
Although both organized and impromptu expressions of grief have played out across the city since Wednesday night, a formal prayer vigil was scheduled for Friday evening at a Charleston arena.
In downtown Charleston, there was talk of the long-term anxiety the shooting might stir.
“The question that I have is, is it going to happen again?” said Jeremy Dye, a 35-year-old taxi driver and security guard from North Charleston who said he knew three people who were killed. “It’s always going to be fear. People in Charleston are going to have that fear now forever. It’s not going to wash away. They’re going to be worried about, ‘OK, when’s the next church going to get hit?’”
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said Friday that the arrest of Roof was crucial to helping the city heal, although the mayor pointedly avoided using his name.
“We are in a period of loving and healing for all of those who have been so terribly injured,” Riley said, in particular the nine families who lost a loved one.
Saying much could be done “to help get evil thoughts out of the minds” of Americans, Riley added that it was time for a dialogue about race in America.
“We in America were not taught African-American history,” he said. “It was never in the history books, and we don’t know the story.”