S.C. families express forgiveness to shooting suspect

Dylann Roof faced families of some of the nine people he’s accused of killing and heard words of forgiveness.

His response: A blank expression.

Wearing a striped prison shirt, the 21-year-old appeared Friday afternoon by video feed at a bond hearing in Charleston, South Carolina. He stood motionless while listening to the anguished words of relatives of victims he allegedly gunned down Wednesday night at a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

Felicia Sanders, the mother of victim Tywanza Sanders, said that “every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.”

“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” she said of Roof. “But may God have mercy on you.”

Roof barely spoke, answering the judge’s questions about his unemployment with a “yes sir” and “no sir” and stating his age as 21.

Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. drew fire on social media by opening the hearing by expressing sympathy for the suspect’s family.

The judge reminded people that “we have victims on this young man’s side of the family and the world they are thrown into,” and reminded everyone to “help those that are victims but to also help [Roof’s] family as well.”

Desiree P. Urquhart CBMaiden tweeted, “Magistrate James Gosnell Jr is an example of white southern bigotry, ignorant pontification & a good ole boy’s entitlement to say anything.”

Gosnell set bail at $1 million on a weapons possession charge. A circuit judge will hold a bond hearing later on the nine murder charges, but it’s unlikely Roof will be allowed to leave jail.

The suspect actually is being held in the North Charleston jail. Authorities didn’t want him to appear at the bond hearing in person for security reasons.

Roof also may be prosecuted by federal authorities if it’s determined he committed a hate crime.

Roof admits he shot and killed the people he’d sat with for Bible study at the historically black church, two law enforcement officials said.

But why? To start a race war.

That’s what Roof told investigators, according to one of the officials.

CNN’s Evan Perez and Wesley Bruer were the first to report Roof’s confession. Others earlier gave a glimpse into the twisted motivation, including at the time and site of the shooting.

There, a survivor told Sylvia Johnson that Roof answered one man’s pleas to stop by saying, “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country … I have to do what I have to do.”

A friend recalled a drunken Roof ranting one night about his unspecified six-month plan “to do something crazy” in order “to start a race war.” And the Berkeley County, South Carolina, government tweeted a picture of him in a jacket with flags from apartheid-era South Africa and nearby Rhodesia, a former British colony that was ruled by a white minority until it became independent in 1980.

By telling authorities his aim, Roof admitted he attacked unarmed civilians for political purposes in an act of terror.

What led the South Carolinian to adopt this reasoning and take such actions Wednesday night? Did anyone else help him or even know about his plans? And what is his general mental state? All are major, looming questions. Another is what American society should or will do now, if anything, to prevent similar tragedies.

In the meantime, nine families are left to mourn and a community is left to come together, ideally, to heal.

“This hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea that he would be able to divide,” Mayor Joseph Riley said. “And all he did was make us more united, and love each other even more.”

Roof faces a long legal road ahead.

It could end in his execution, assuming he’s convicted and prosecutors seek (and are granted) such a death sentence, according to South Carolina law. Gov. Nikki Haley indicated that’s what she wants, while Charleston’s mayor — while he doesn’t support the death penalty personally — thinks it’s inevitable.

“If you’re going to have a death penalty,” Riley said, “then certainly this case will merit it.”

How did Dylann Roof get to the point of being accused of one of the most hateful, violent race-related crimes in recent memory?

His uncle, Carson Cowles, told The Washington Post that Roof’s mother “never raised him to be like this.” Those who knew him, though, paint a picture of someone who has long voiced racist sentiments, even if they never anticipated he’d act on them like this.

John Mullins recalls “racist slurs in a sense” that Roof made while the two attended White Knoll High School in Lexington, South Carolina, though he also remembers him having black friends.

“He would say it just as a joke,” Mullins told CNN. “I never took it seriously. But … maybe (I) should have.”

That sentiment was echoed by Joey Meek, who told CNN that he hadn’t seen his old classmate for five years until the two became roommates about a month ago. He recalled Roof being quiet and keeping to himself since then, except for one night when he drank a liter of vodka and talked about his vague plans to start a race war.

“He wanted it to be white with white, and black with black,” Meek said, adding that he took Roof’s gun as a precaution that night only to put it back the next morning. “He had it in his mind, and he didn’t really let nobody know (what he was going to do).”

Meek said he told Roof then that he “didn’t agree with his opinion at all,” but he didn’t talk to authorities until Thursday, when he noticed surveillance photos and called a police hotline.

“Dylann wasn’t a serious person, no one took him serious,” Meek said. “But if someone had taken him serious, this all would all have been avoided.”

It’s one thing to talk of stirring racial hatred, another to act on it to kill nine innocent people — including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who had welcomed Roof into the Bible study session.

One key part of this horrific scheme — the weapon — came in April, when Roof bought a .45-caliber handgun at a Charleston gun store, the two law enforcement officials told Perez and Bruer from CNN, the first network to report this development. His grandfather says that Roof was given “birthday money” and that the family didn’t know what Roof did with it.

He apparently didn’t hint at his intentions when he went to the historic church Wednesday. A Snapchat video shows him at a table with a small group, not anything to suggest the carnage to come.

When the Bible study ended after about an hour, “they just heard just a ringing of a loud noise,” Johnson said, relaying a survivor’s account.

From what Johnson heard, Roof reloaded his gun five times. Six women died at the scene, as did two men — with a third, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., passing away later during surgery. Johnson said her friend played dead, lying in the blood of her slain son.

Before Roof left the church, he asked one of the elderly members whether he had shot her, and she said no.

“And he said, ‘Good, because we need a survivor because I’m going to kill myself,’ ” Johnson told CNN.

Roof then took off, hopping into his car and heading north.

Debbie Dills spotted a vehicle matching the description given by authorities, noticing the South Carolina license plate.

“I don’t know what drew my attention to the car,” Dills told CNN. “In my mind I’m thinking, ‘That can’t be.’ … I never dreamed that it would be the car.”

She followed him more than 30 miles, keeping authorities updated along the way.

Police in Shelby, North Carolina — about 245 miles from Charleston — then pulled him over and took him into custody. He then waived extradition and returned to South Carolina late Thursday.

Federal authorities have opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting at the oldest AME church in the South, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Charleston’s mayor said that society should continue to talk about issues pertaining to race and try to educate people more, like through an African-American history museum planned for a Charleston site where slaves used to land to be sold in the United States. But, he added, it may not be realistic to think you’ll be able to change the minds of all racists.

“There’s a lot of things we can do, in our country, to enhance the dialogue about race,” Riley said. “But to get (hateful thoughts) out of the minds of very evil people … is very difficult.”

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