Families of Charleston 9 forgive shooting suspect
Charleston, S.C. — They forgave him. They advised him to repent for his sins, and asked for God's mercy on his soul. One even told Dylann Storm Roof to repent and confess, and "you'll be OK."
Relatives of the nine people shot down during a Bible study session inside their historic black church confronted the 21-year-old suspect Friday during his initial hearing. They described their pain and anger, but also spoke of love.
"I forgive you, my family forgives you," said Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was killed. "We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. … Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now."
Roof was ordered held until a bond is set on murder charges. He appeared by video from the county jail and seemed to show no emotion as family members spoke.
Thousands of people gathered Friday night at a vigil in the College of Charleston's arena in downtown Charleston to remember those who were slain. Some brought their children with them.
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander said the same hatred that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, was responsible for the slayings more than 50 years later.
"How do we eradicate the hate? How do we eradicate the violence?" she said. "We search, but we search together."
The victims included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who doubled as the church's lead pastor, and eight others who played multiple roles in their families and communities: ministers and coaches, teachers and a librarian, counselors and choir singers and the elderly sexton who made sure the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was kept clean.
President Barack Obama said Friday that's is not sufficient to simply to grieve over the shootings as he made a vigorous new call for gun control.
Obama said some have misinterpreted his comments at the White House Thursday to mean he's resigned that gun control isn't possible.
"I am not resigned," he said to the U.S. conference of Mayors meeting in San Francisco. "I have faith that eventually we will do the right thing."
A police affidavit released Friday accused Roof of shooting all nine multiple times, and making a "racially inflammatory statement" as he stood over an unnamed survivor.
The families are determined not to respond in kind, said Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons.
"Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof — everyone's plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won't win," she said. "And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn't win."
Felecia Sanders survived the Wednesday night attack by pretending to be dead, but lost her son Tywanza. She also spoke from Chief Magistrate James Gosnell's courtroom, where Roof's image appeared on a television screen. It is not unusual in South Carolina for the families of victims to be given a chance to address the court during a bond hearing.
"We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. 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," Sanders told Roof.
"Tywanza was my hero," Sanders added, but then even she showed some kindness to the man accused of killing her son: "As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you."
Roof bowed his head slightly. From the jail, he could hear them talking, but couldn't see them; the camera showed only the judge.
"Charleston is a very strong community. We have big hearts. We're a very loving community," said Gosnell, who urged people to find it in their hearts to help not only the nine victims, but "victims on the young man's side of the family" as well.
Roof's public defender released a statement from his family offering prayers and sympathy for the victims, and expressing "shock, grief and disbelief as to what happened that night."
"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 statement said.
The comments in court seemed in keeping with a spirit evident on the streets of Charleston Friday, where people built a memorial and thousands attended a vigil to repudiate whatever a gunman would hope to accomplish by attacking one of the nation's most important African-American sanctuaries.
"A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he'd be able to divide, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more," Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said as he described plans for the evening vigil at a sports arena.
A steady stream of people brought flowers and notes and shared somber thoughts at a growing memorial in front of the church, which President Obama called "a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America."
The Justice Department announced Friday that it's investigating whether it could be a hate crime or domestic terrorism. Agency spokeswoman Emily Pierce said the slayings were "undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said the state will "absolutely" want the death penalty.
"This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such," the Rev. Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Friday in Charleston.
Spilling blood inside the "Mother Emanuel" church, founded in 1816, evoked painful memories of the racist violence that black churches have so often suffered, and the values their congregations have tried to uphold in response.
"For me, I'm a work in progress and I acknowledge that I'm very angry," said Bethane Middleton-Brown, who appeared in court on behalf of her sister, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor.
"We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul," she said. "And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgment day comes with him."
Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two and a Democrat who spent 19 years in the South Carolina legislature. The other victims were Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; and the reverends DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.
Bloomberg News contributed.