As the young white man charged with murdering nine people inside an historic black church in South Carolina stood silently and expressionless at a court hearing on Friday, relatives of the slain worshippers faced him one by one, offering tearful words of grief and forgiveness.
Dylann Roof, 21, who authorities say spent an hour in Bible study with parishioners at the nearly 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston before opening fire on them, appeared via video feed before Chief Magistrate James Gosnell who ordered him held without bond.
Dressed in a black-and-white prison uniform and flanked by two guards in body armor, Roof exhibited no visible emotion during the proceedings, even as he was addressed by loved ones of the victims. He was formally charged with nine counts of murder and a weapons offense.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” said Felicia Sanders, whose 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders, was the youngest person to die in Wednesday’s rampage. “You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts.”
Felicia Sanders was said by a family friend interviewed by CNN to have survived the shooting rampage by lying on the floor and playing dead as she cradled another survivor, her 5-year-old granddaughter, while her son’s blood soaked her clothes.
According to friends and family, Tywanza Sanders pleaded with the gunman as he paused to reload his weapon, saying, “You don’t have to do this,” to which the suspect replied: “No, you’ve raped our women and taken our country. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
Roof stared blankly, and glanced downward occasionally, as Sanders and four other family members of the gunshot victims spoke of how he had been welcomed into to the church by the nine people he has been charged with slaying.
The attack at the church nicknamed “Mother Emanuel” for its key role in African-American history followed a wave of protests across the United States in recent months over police killings and excessive force against unarmed black men, focusing attention on race relations and bias in the criminal justice system.
Gosnell himself was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court for misconduct in 2005 in two cases, one in which he used a racial slur during a bond-reduction hearing for a black defendant, according to a copy of the rebuke posted online.
The magistrate also drew sharp criticism from some observers of Friday’s hearing after saying Roof’s family members were “victims” too.
The bloodshed in Charleston, where residents packed an arena for a prayer vigil late Friday, marked the latest in a series of fatal U.S. mass shootings. The violence has renewed a national debate between advocates of tighter controls on gun possession and supporters of unfettered access to firearms they assert is constitutionally protected under the Second Amendment.
“The elephant in the room is guns. South Carolina and the country have gone gun-crazy,” said state Representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents Charleston. “How many times do we need to come together? How many times do we need to unite?”
President Barack Obama, addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, said the latest shooting exposed the “blight” of racism still present in America, and he railed against critics who have accused him of politicizing a tragedy to talk about tougher gun laws.
“You don’t see murder on this kind of scale, with this kind of frequency, in any other advanced nation on Earth,” he said.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the attack as both a hate crime and potential act of terrorism, spokeswoman Emily Pierce said on Friday.