The prosecutor who will pursue the case against the gunman accused of killing nine people inside a historic church in Charleston, S.C., said Friday she has not decided whether she will seek the death penalty in the case.
She said that decision would come at a later time, after she was able to speak to the relatives of the people killed Wednesday inside the church.
“My first obligation, my primary obligation is to these victims’ families,” said Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, at a news conference Friday afternoon. “They deserve to know the facts first. They deserve to be involved in any conversations regarding the death penalty.”
Wilson said it was too soon to begin these discussions.
“But now is not the time to have the conversations with them,” she said. “They need the time and the space to mourn and to grieve and we’re going to give them that.”
Wilson spoke shortly after the first bond hearing for Dylann Roof, who was arrested Thursday and has been charged with nine counts of murder. At the hearing, several relatives of the church victims stood to speak to Roof, offering him forgiveness and saying they were praying for him. Roof, who was appearing in a video feed from a nearby detention center, remained impassive, staring downward.
During her brief remarks, Wilson described receiving a phone call recently from Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor and state senator who was fatally shot inside the church. She said she did not really know Pinckney, but said he called simply to offer good will.
“He wasn’t asking for a favor,” she said. “He wasn’t asking for inside information. He just made a call to someone that he barely knew but who he appreciated and he had a deep understand for our need to work behind the scenes quietly for a successful prosecution.”
Wilson said his words would be “inspiring” to her and her staff as the shooting case moves into the realm of prosecution and trial.
“”We will serve justice,” she said. “My mission is to bring justice for this community, and especially for the victims in this case.”
On Friday morning, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) described the shooting spree as “an absolute hate crime” and called on prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
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.
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.
On Friday, the Justice Department said that it is investigating the shooting “from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.”