Charleston Shooting Victims’ Families Grieve as Dylann Roof Makes Court Appearance

Suspect in alleged hate crime appears in courtroom through video linkup; charged with nine counts of murder and weapons possession

The Wall Street Journal/June 19, 2015

By Valerie Bauerlein and Mara Gay

North Charleston, South Carolina -- One by one, they stood in a courtroom on Friday and addressed accused killer Dylann Roof. One by one, they told him he had hurt them. One by one, they said they forgave him.

“We are the family that love built,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of the Rev. Depayne Middleton, 49 years old, who was one of the nine people killed in Wednesday’s mass church shooting in Charleston. “We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive,” she said.

A routine bond hearing for Mr. Roof turned into a raw testament to loss and reconciliation as five relatives of the nine victims accepted an invitation from Chief Magistrate James Gosnell Jr. to speak directly to the man accused in the apparently racially motivated massacre. 

“I just want everyone to know I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, 70. “You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

Felicia Sanders, who friends said survived the attack along with her young granddaughter, told Mr. Roof that the Bible study group targeted in the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston had welcomed him that evening. Her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, was killed in the attack on Wednesday night.

“You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same,” she said. “May God have mercy on your soul.”

“Hate won’t win,” said Alana Simmons, the granddaughter of the Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of Myra Thompson, 59, said that he and his family forgave Mr. Roof and urged him to repent and turn his life over to Jesus Christ.

Wearing striped prison garb and flanked by two armed guards, Mr. Roof, 21, listened to the proceedings through a video linkup from a detention center.

He was charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Represented by Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, Mr. Roof didn’t enter a plea.

Mr. Roof spoke only to answer three questions from the judge, saying, “Yes, sir,” when asked to confirm his address in Eastover, S.C. He also gave his age and said he wasn’t employed.

Mr. Gosnell said he didn’t have the authority to set bail for murder charges, but set it at $1 million on the weapons-possession charge. Mr. Roof’s next court appearance was set for October.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said it was weighing possible hate-crime and terrorism charges against Mr. Roof.

“This heartbreaking episode was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community, and the department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism,” a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

Warrants released on Friday alleged that Mr. Roof entered Emanuel AME Church, one of the nation’s most historic African-American houses of worship, about 8 p.m. on Wednesday wearing a fanny pack. He sat with the Bible study group for about an hour before pulling out a gun and methodically killing his victims, the warrants alleged. Law-enforcement officials said Mr. Roof had a. 45-caliber handgun and reloaded multiple times.

Mr. Roof allegedly told his victims that African-Americans were taking over the country and “raping our women,” and he purposely left one person alive to share his motivations, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Among those he allegedly gunned down was the church’s leader, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a long-serving South Carolina state senator and civil-rights leader. The other victims ranged in age from 26 to 87.

After authorities distributed security-camera images of the suspected killer on Thursday morning, Mr. Roof’s father and uncle contacted the police and identified him, the warrants said. Mr. Roof’s father told police he had a .45-caliber weapon, according to the warrants. Mr. Roof was arrested later that day in Shelby, N.C.

Church member Renee Ross said her close friend Ms. Sanders was a survivor of the attack. Ms. Sanders protected her young granddaughter, Camia Terry, by urging her to lie on the floor and play dead, Ms. Ross said.

Ms. Ross said Ms. Sanders was doing “not too good.” She said she and Ms. Sanders, along with a few other church members, had planned to go to Chicago this weekend for fun. 

“It’s time to heal, but we still have to realize that there is a very serious race issue here. We need to keep talking about it,” Ms. Ross said.

People who answered the door at the Sanders home on Friday declined to comment.

Mr. Roof told investigators on Thursday that he was responsible for the killings, and that he considered not going through with his plan, because everyone at the church was kind to him, according to a law-enforcement official close to the investigation. Mr. Roof’s attorney declined to comment.

In an unexpected moment at the bail hearing, Mr. Gosnell called for sympathy and help for the victims, but also for Mr. Roof’s family, whom he said had been thrust unwillingly into a maelstrom.

Cars were gathered at the Columbia, S.C., home of Mr. Roof’s grandfather on Friday, but no one answered the door. When reached by phone, the grandfather, lawyer C. Joseph Roof, sounded shaken and acknowledged it was a difficult time. “You have no idea,” he said. He declined to comment further.

The family later released a statement: “The Roof Family would like to extend their deepest sympathies and condolences to families of the victims in Wednesday night’s shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Words cannot express our shock, grief and disbelief as to what happened that night. We are devastated and saddened by what occurred. We offer our prayers [and] sympathy for all of those impacted by these events.”

Mr. Roof, who grew up around Columbia, left high school following ninth grade in 2010, according to a school district that didn’t have records of him continuing his education. His racist views and aimless life troubled some in his family, according to friends and relatives.

The charges against him came only hours after South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said the alleged gunman should face the death penalty. “We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty,” she told NBC.

Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the top prosecutor, said after the bond hearing that it was too soon to talk about the death penalty. She said that she wanted family members to be part of the discussion, and that they needed time to heal.

—Devlin Barrett, Ana Campoy and Cameron McWhirter contributed to this article.

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