In an extraordinary emotional display of raw pain and grace, the relatives of those slain in a shooting at a historic black church confronted suspected killer Dylann Roof in court on Friday. Through tears, some reached for forgiveness.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felecia Sanders, who survived the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where her son, Tywanza, died. “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … and I'll never be the same.”
“Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero,” she said. “May God have mercy on you.”
Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. … We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now.”
Roof, 21, appeared on a video screen in the small courtroom in North Charleston, next door to the jail where he has been held since being captured in North Carolina on Thursday after an extensive manhunt. He stood with his hands cuffed behind his back and answered “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” in a flat voice to questions from Chief Magistrate Judge James Gosnell.
The judge began the hearing with a statement of sympathy for those slain — as well as for Roof's family.
“We have victims, nine of them, but we also have victims on the other side,” Gosnell said. “There are victims on the other side, this young man's family. No one would ever have thrown them into the whirlwind they have been thrown into.”
In a statement later, the Roof family extended its “deepest sympathies and condolences” to the families of the victims. “Words cannot express our shock, grief, and disbelief as to what happened that night. We are devastated and saddened by what occurred,” they said, asking for privacy.
In South Carolina, it is not unusual for victims or relatives to speak at a bond hearing like Roof's. But Friday's hearing was an exceptional display of emotion.
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again,” said one sobbing woman who identified herself as the daughter of Ethel Lance. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. I forgive you.”
Roof is being held in a special isolation unit in the jail. In the next cell is Michael Slager, the white North Charleston police officer charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in April.
Gosnell, a lower-court judge, does not have authority to set bond in a capital case, but he set a $1-million bond on a weapons charge. The judge set the next hearings for Oct. 23 and Feb. 5.
President Obama again weighed in on gun violence on Friday. Speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, he said that it's not enough to show empathy for victims of gun violence but that leaders must also push for a change in public opinion.
“Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people,” Obama said. “What's different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns. ... It is not good enough simply to show sympathy.”
In the North Charleston court Friday, officials filed criminal complaints and warrants from police that revealed more details about the attack.
After shooting nine people, Roof taunted one of
the survivors and “uttered a racially inflammatory
statement,” according to documents that said the victims, all African Americans, had been shot multiple times.
“The defendant did enter the church at approx. 8:06 p.m. with a fanny pack,” the documents said. “He met with the parishioners who were conducting Bible study for the evening.
“After approximately an hour of studying, the defendant stood up and with malice and aforethought pulled out a handgun and began shooting at the parishioners inside the hall … 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 documents say.
Inside the church, the records state, police recovered a number of .45-caliber shell casings. Roof's father told authorities that his son owns a .45-caliber handgun, the documents said.
Authorities initially suspected Roof after his father and uncle called Charleston police and “positively identified” him and his vehicle in images released by police. A citizen's tip led to Roof's arrest in Shelby, N.C., about 250 miles away from the shooting.
Roof has reportedly made statements “tantamount to a confession” in the shooting, a law enforcement source said earlier Friday.
The federal law enforcement official, speaking anonymously, said he was told that Roof talked to local investigators and described some details about the shooting. The official has been briefed on the matter but is not permitted to speak publicly because the case is unfolding.
Among the victims was the church's pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who had sponsored a bill in the Legislature to require police to wear body cameras — a move that came after Slager, the white police officer, killed Walter Scott in North Charleston.
In addition to Pinckney, 41, the other victims in the church shooting were Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; and the Revs. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Sharonda Singleton, 45, and Daniel Simmons Sr., 74. Three people survived.
Middleton-Doctor's sister also spoke to Roof in court, saying she is still struggling to forgive.
“For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown. “We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgment day comes.”
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Timothy M. Phelps in Charleston and Christi Parsons in San Francisco contributed to this report.