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‘I forgive you.’ Relatives of Charleston church shooting victims address Dylann Roof

Relatives of the nine victims killed in a shooting inside an AME church in Charleston, S.C., addressed the alleged shooter Dylann Roof during a bond hearing, many offering forgiveness to Roof. (Video: Charleston County Government)

The relatives of people slain inside the historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week were able to speak directly to the accused gunman Friday at his first court appearance.

One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses.

“I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

[In their words: The powerful messages of forgiveness delivered by the relatives]

The bond hearing in North Charleston was the first public appearance of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old arrested in connection with the shootings, since police booked him into a Charleston County detention center and said he was charged with nine counts of murder.

Roof appeared at the bond hearing in a video feed from the Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston, S.C.

At the hearing, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. said he could not set bond for the murder charges, but said he set bond for $1 million for the charge of possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. In cases involving people charged with a capital offense or who face life in prison, only a circuit court judge can set the bond, according to the county. Gosnell said Roof would appear in court in October and again in February 2016.

A nation in mourning

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, center, embraces U.S. Sen. Tim Scott during a news conference in the South Carolina State House, Monday, June 22, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Haley said that the Confederate flag should come down from the grounds of the state capitol, reversing her position on the divisive symbol amid growing calls for it to be removed. (Tim Dominick/The State via AP)

Roof only spoke to confirm his address, age and to state that he is unemployed. While a procession of victims rose to speak, Roof largely stared down, his eyes avoiding the camera trained on his face.

Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, declined to make a statement during the hearing. Attorneys for Roof said they understood that he would not be able to post bond.

[The victims of the Charleston church shooting]

Gosnell began the hearing by saying that there was pain on both sides — the victims of the shooting inside the Emanuel AME church as well as the relatives of Roof who are reeling from what happened. He then recited the names of the people killed inside the church, and each time asked if any relatives or representatives of the slain wanted to make a statement in the courtroom.

Felicia Sanders spoke about her son, Tywanza Sanders, who was killed.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms,” said Felicia Sanders, her voice trembling. “Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero….May God have mercy on you.”

Mourners outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church share in each other’s grief and speak of a collective resilience. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Some people chose not to speak. Others, like a relative of Myra Thompson, echoed the forgiving sentiment, calling on Roof to repent.

“I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons, said that the pleas for Roof’s soul were proof that “hate won’t win.”

One by one, they stood to speak, and each time, Roof remained impassive, his eyes cast downward.

Roof was arrested Thursday morning in North Carolina after a florist saw him in his car and called police. On Friday morning, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called the shooting spree “an absolute hate crime” and called on prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

On Friday, Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said the agency is investigating the shooting “from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.”

After the hearing, Wilson, the prosecutor, said no determination has been made yet about whether or not prosecutors would seek the death penalty.

[Gunman shot each victim “multiple times," police say]

Roof is being held at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in a cell near the cell holding Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer who was arrested in April after video captured him shooting at Walter Scott, a driver fleeing a traffic stop.

South Carolina has the death penalty and carries out executions by lethal injection. State law says that prosecutors can seek the death penalty if there are certain “aggravating circumstances” in the case, and one of these aggravating circumstances is when the person in question is charged with murdering two or more people during a single act. 

In South Carolina, if prosecutors seek the death penalty and show that aggravating circumstances were involved, the person on trial can be sentenced to life in prison without parole if a death sentence is not handed down.

[The police officer who shot Walter Scott probably won’t face the death penalty]

While South Carolina has carried out more executions than all but a handful of states in the modern era — it is tied with North Carolina for the ninth-most executions since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 — it has not put an inmate to death since 2011.

DeNeen Brown and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.

[This post has been updated. First published: 2:44 p.m.]