CHARLESTON: As the young white man charged with murdering nine people inside an historic black church in South Carolina stood blankly silent during a court hearing on Friday, relatives of slain worshippers addressed him one by one, offering tearful words of grief and forgiveness.
Dylann Roof, 21, who authorities say spent an hour in Bible study with parishioners at the nearly 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Church before opening fire on them, stood quietly, stoically, as he appeared via video feed for an initial bond hearing before a magistrate judge.
Dressed in a black-and-white prison uniform and flanked by two guards in body armor, Roof showed no reaction as the judge ordered him held without bail. He was formally charged with nine counts of murder and a weapons offense.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” said Felicia Sanders, whose 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders, was the youngest person to die in Wednesday’s rampage. “You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts.”
Roof looked down occasionally and showed no emotion as Sanders and four other family members of the gunshot victims spoke of how he had been welcomed into to the church by the nine people he has been charged with slaying on Wednesday night.
The attack at the church nicknamed “Mother Emanuel” for its key role in African-American history followed a wave of protests across the United States in recent months over police killings and excessive force against unarmed black men, focusing attention on race relations and bias in the criminal justice system.
The bloodshed in Charleston, where residents packed an arena for a prayer vigil late Friday, marked the latest in a series of fatal U.S. mass shootings. The violence has renewed a national debate between advocates of tighter controls on gun possession and supporters of unfettered access to firearms they assert is constitutionally protected under the Second Amendment.
“The elephant in the room is guns. South Carolina and the country have gone gun-crazy,” said state Representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents Charleston. “How many times do we need to come together? How many times do we need to unite?”
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the attack as both a hate crime and potential act of terrorism, spokeswoman Emily Pierce said on Friday.