“I forgive you,” said the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance to the 21-year-old man who allegedly murdered her mother in church and appeared at an emotionally charged video court appearance in Charleston on Friday afternoon, two days after a horrific mass shooting here.
Relatives of the Emanuel church victims stood up one by one in the courtroom, offering forgiveness to the man accused of murdering their sons, mothers and grandfathers in cold blood, as a nation continued to call for justice.
Dylann Roof appeared at his bond hearing via videolink from the Charleston detention center, where he is being held in isolation. Officials later confirmed he is being detained in the same jail unit as Michael Slager, the white police officer who just 10 weeks ago stood in the same court, charged with the murder of Walter Scott, whom he shot five times from behind as the unarmed black man ran away.
“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you,” Lance’s daughter said through tears. “It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.”
Speaking of her son Tywanza Sanders, who was also killed on Wednesday night trying to shield his great aunt from gunfire, Felicia Sanders said to the suspect: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts. I will never be the same.”
She continued: “Tywanza was my hero. But as they say in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on your soul.”
Roof stood still, in an oversized black-and-gray striped inmate’s uniform, as Judge James Gosnell requested a representative from each family to declare if they wished to make a formal statement.
The 21-year-old was flanked by two heavily armored officers throughout the hearing. He uttered very few words, confirming his age, employment status and address in a timid baritone. As successive relatives stood to offer him forgiveness, he expressed no emotion, staring down and occasionally into the camera inside a cell.
Court officials later confirmed that Roof could see into the courtroom and heard each of the speeches, but he could not see the relatives who stood a few feet away from the judge, out of his view.
Alanna Simmons, the granddaughter of 74-year-old retired pastor Daniel Simmons, stood after Sanders.
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof that they lived and loved,” she said. “Hate won’t win.”
In all, five representatives of the nine people killed in the massacre spoke at the hearing, with President Barack Obama tweeting shortly after the hearing that the “decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families”.
In an address later on Friday in San Francisco, Obama made a renewed call to action on gun control, saying he had “faith we will eventually do the right thing” despite political gridlock in Washington.
“The apparent motivations of the shooter remind us that racism remains a blight that we have to combat together,” he said.
The small courthouse in Charleston was packed full of relatives and friends who had arrived earlier in the afternoon in small groups, walking through the sweltering 95-degree heat, flanked by sheriff’s deputies and taking no questions from media. In an opening statement Judge Gosnell asked that Roof’s family be acknowledged as they were also victims of his crimes.
“We would like you to take this opportunity to repent,” said Anthony Thompson, grandson of 59-year-old Myra Thompson as the family’s statements continued. “Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be OK.
Roof’s family later issued its first public statement since the shooting: “We have all been touched by the moving words from the victims’ families offering God’s forgiveness and love in the face of such horrible suffering,” the family said.
Immediately after the hearing, court officials released Roof’s arrest warrants, which provided chilling new details on how all nine were shot during a prayer group meeting at the historic Emanuel AME church in downtown Charleston.
Roof was seen on security camera footage entering the church on Wednesday night, at 8:06pm, the warrants said. He spent an hour studying with the dozen parishioners in the Bible study room and then opened fire, striking each victim “multiple times”.
“Prior to leaving the Bible study room he stood over a witness to be named later and uttered a racially inflammatory statement to the witness,” the warrant states.
After a manhunt, Roof was identified to police by both his father and uncle, who recognized him and his car from photographs distributed to the public by police. Roof’s father confirmed to police that his son owned a .45 caliber handgun, which he was seen carrying out of the church shortly after 9pm on Wednesday. Investigators stated in the warrant that .45 caliber shell casings were recovered in the church.
On Friday afternoon, the US justice department announced it is investigating whether the church shooting could be a hate crime or an act of domestic terror.
On Thursday, the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had described the massacre as a “barbaric crime”, and said it was being looked at as a hate crime. “Acts like this have no place in our country and in a civilized society,” Lynch said in Washington.
Roof’s homicide charges make him eligible for the death penalty, for which South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley advocated during a visit to Charleston on Friday.
Earlier in the day, the NAACP national president, Cornell William Brooks, condemned the church attack as a hate crime.
“This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such,” Brooks said in an emotional press conference of his own.
Brooks, who spent time in Charleston as a child as both his grandfather and uncle owned barbershops nearby, said the state and the US as a whole needed to examine the underlying racial hatred that fuelled Roof’s crime.
He made particular note of the Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina state house.
“Some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by, a symbol of heritage, not hate. But when we see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate … as an inspiration of violence, that symbol has to come down.” Tensions over the flag have been renewed since the shooting, and local politicians were preparing legislation to have it removed.
On Friday morning, the Republican presidential candidate and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham attempted to distance Roof’s actions from the flag’s prominent position in South Carolina politics.
“We’re not going to give this guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him … not the flag,” Graham told CNN.
The senator was present at a vigil, later on Friday, when hundreds of people cheered and applauded at repeated calls for the flag to be removed from state buildings.
There was a loud expression of support from Nelson B Rivers, from the National Action Network civil rights group, who compared calls for the flag to be taken down for the legislation to introduce body cameras in the aftermath of Walter Scott’s death.
“Walter Scott got killed and the paradigm shifted, and then all of a sudden what couldn’t be done became a done deal,” he said.
Amid a rising a cacophony of supportive shouting, Rivers called on lawmakers in the auditorium: “You will take that flag down, you will taken it down!”
Graham, who sat impassively, later told the Guardian he welcomed the debate, although declined to take a firm position. “There are graveyards of confederate soldiers all over the state – what do we do? How much of revisiting ones past is going to take before we can move forward?”
Graham and South Carolina’s other senator, Tim Scott – also a Republican – both remained seated during standing ovations following calls for a “rational conversation” about gun rights in America.
Charleston’s mayor, Joseph P Riley, said he did not want to inject any kind of politics into the situation, but added: “Nine people died, because of this crazed man, with obviously easy access to a handgun,”
“It is complicated, and the right to bear arms is ingrained in the Constitution and life in America, but we can’t just forget about this and we must encourage a national discussion. There has got to be a better way.”
He added: “We don’t want to live in a country where you need a security guard for Bible study.”
Further vigils to mourn the nine murdered church members were planned to continue in Charleston and throughout the US through the weekend.
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