CHARLESTON, S.C. – Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black parishioners in a racially motivated attack at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, the U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday.
“The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.
Dylann Roof, 22, is accused of opening fire on June 17, 2015, during a Bible study session at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The killings shook the country and intensified the debate about race in America.
He faces 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses. In a court filing, federal prosecutors accused him of holding racist views, targeting the victims because of their race and lacking remorse as factors justifying their decision.
Charlotte resident Malcolm Graham, whose sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was among the nine killed inside Emanuel AME, issued a statement supporting federal prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty.
“This was a crime of hate,” he said in the statement. “There’s no room in our society for hate, racism and discrimination. Racism is America’s Achilles’ heel and we must work tirelessly to eradicate it. It starts with how we teach our children and how we lead by example, putting kindness above all else.”
Graham, a former Charlotte City Council member and a former state senator, is running for U.S. Congress in North Carolina’s 12th District.
Roof’s federal trial had been delayed while U.S. prosecutors decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Defense attorneys have said he would plead guilty if he did not face the possibility of execution and that they could not advise him until federal prosecutors decided.
Roof’s attorney, Michael O’Connell, declined to comment on the prosecution’s decision when reached by phone on Tuesday.
Roof also faces the death penalty if convicted on separate, state murder charges in a trial set to begin in January.
Owing to their religious beliefs, some of the victims’ families do not believe in the death penalty, while others felt it was appropriate, the state prosecutor trying the case said last September.
Steve Schmutz, an attorney representing families of three victims, said his clients “support whatever decision the U.S. government is making in this case, and I’m sure they support this decision.”
When Roof was charged days after the shooting, some relatives of the slain worshippers tearfully offered words of forgiveness during an initial court appearance. One asked God to have mercy on his soul, while others noted that the victims would have urged love.
Almost a year later, views diverged on the U.S. government’s death penalty decision, the local Post and Courier newspaper reported.
“It’s a great message being sent by the government that this won’t be tolerated,” Kevin Singleton, whose mother was killed, told the newspaper.
The relative of another victim cited the Bible in calling for Roof to spend his life in prison rather than die.
Federal prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty against defendants. Only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past half century and none since 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The best-known of those was Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C.; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla. and David Ingram in New York; Additional reporting and writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)