CHARLESTON, S.C. — The man accused of gunning down nine African Americans last month inside a historic black church known as “Mother Emanuel” has told his lawyers that he currently plans to plead guilty to federal hate crime charges, Dylann Roof’s attorney David Bruck told a federal judge Friday.
However, Bruck said that because federal officials have not decided whether to seek a death sentence for some of those charges, he had told Roof not to enter that plea. As a result, Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant said a “not guilty” plea — effectively a temporary plea — would be entered for the alleged shooter.
“We are not able to advise Mr. Roof to enter a plea of guilty” until the government makes a decision on the death penalty, Bruck said.
Dylann Storm Roof, 21, appeared in a courtroom blocks from the site of the massacre as he was formally read the 33 federal charges stemming from the shooting. Roof, who had already been charged with nine counts of murder, was indicted last week on the federal hate crime charges.
Some of the federal charges Roof is facing carry a possible death penalty, but U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said last week that no decision has been made about whether the federal government would seek that sentence. Lynch said that victims’ families and survivors of the church attack would be consulted before a final decision is made on seeking the death penalty.
Roof’s attorneys did not say what could prompt a change in his plans to plead guilty. Bruck said that he could not properly advise Roof until the death penalty question is answered, so it’s possible that his plea could change as the case progresses.
In death penalty cases a plea of guilty or not guilty can be used as a way to avoid a death sentence. Theodore J. Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, had long pleaded not guilty to charges; he ultimately struck a deal and pleaded guilty the day that opening arguments in his trial were set to begin, agreeing to life in prison without possibility of parole and evading the death penalty.
Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, has also not announced any decision about whether she would seek the death penalty for the murder charges Roof is facing in the state. Wilson also said she would discuss it with victims’ families before deciding.
When Lynch announced the federal charges, she did not say how they would affect the state’s prosecution, describing them as “parallel” processes.
Dozens of the victim’s family members and friends packed the courtroom to face Roof in person for the first time. Some stared at him from a jury box stone-faced, while others turned and wiped away tears. Several family members again expressed forgiveness, echoing words they had said to Roof during his first court appearance two days after the shooting.
“He will not take my joy,” Gracyn Doctor, the daughter of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, one of the victims, said with Roof just steps behind her. “Hate will not win. I pray the Lord have mercy on his soul.”
Leroy Singleton said through tears that the loss of his sister, Myra Thompson, had created a vacuum in the family. “We miss her. We miss her a whole lot,” Singleton said. “We will continue to trust God.” He added: “We have no ill will towards him.”
Other relatives also wanted to make sure that Roof understood their pain. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this young man,” said Tyrone Sanders, the father of victim Tywanza Sanders and the husband of Felecia Sanders, a survivor who hid under a table and who Roof took for dead. Tywanza Sanders was killed protecting his mother.
“I’m hurting inside,” he said. “What he’s accused of doing — I want him to think about. I want him to think about what I’m thinking about for the rest of his life.”
Melvin Graham, brother of victim Cynthia Hurd, told the judge he wanted his sister’s name “to be heard so that it resonates.”
On Friday, Marchant said that since Roof is unable to pay for his defense, Bruck, a well-known anti-death penalty attorney, and Michael O’Connell, were appointed to lead the team representing him.
The federal hate crime charges came because Roof killed and attempted to kill people due to “their race and in order to interfere with their exercise of their religion,” Lynch said last week.
Days after the massacre, authorities said Roof had posted a racist manifesto on his Web site that was filled with racial stereotypes and diatribes against black, Jewish and Hispanic people. In one part of the rant, Roof criticized people who only talked online and declared his desire to take action.
The site was also filled with photos of Roof holding a .45-caliber Glock pistol and a Confederate flag. One official said the site was last modified just hours before the shooting attack inside the church.
In addition to the murder charges and hate crime charges, Roof has also been indicted on three attempted murder charges and one count of possessing a deadly weapon during a violent crime.
[This post has been updated. First published: 12:03 p.m.]