WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The white man suspected of murdering nine black people during bible study at a South Carolina church was charged on Wednesday with federal hate crimes, adding to multiple state counts that raise the possibility of a death sentence.
“The parishioners had Bibles. Dylann Roof had his .45 caliber Glock pistol and eight magazines loaded with hollow point bullets,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said after a federal grand jury returned the 33-count indictment against Roof.
The 21-year-old is accused of the deadly shooting spree last month at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The indictment says he targeted the victims on the basis of race, in a house of worship, “in order to make his attack more notorious.”
Roof planned the June 17 attack for several months, Lynch said at a press conference to announce the indictment. She said he singled out the nearly 200-year-old church known as “Mother Emanuel” because of its historical significance in the African-American community.
The federal government has not decided if it will seek the death penalty if Roof is convicted, Lynch said. She said officials will consider factors including the wishes of the families of the shooting victims.
Lynch noted that relatives signaled their anger toward Roof as well as a readiness to forgive him, during a series of wrenching statements at the suspect’s first court appearance two days after the massacre.
Roof already faces nine murder counts, plus charges of attempted murder and firearms violations, brought by state prosecutors.
The massacre has triggered soul-searching over race relations in the U.S. South, with its history of slavery and segregation. A long debate about the Confederate flag came to a head after the massacre, when photos of Roof draped in the flag surfaced on a website with a racist manifesto. South Carolina removed the flag, a Civil War-era symbol, from the state house grounds.
South Carolina is one of the few U.S. states that has no hate crime statute on its books, contributing the Justice Department’s pursuit of the federal indictment.
“The full weight of the national government and our federal judicial system is being brought against this man, as is the full weight of our state judicial system,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. “It’s important that every legal avenue is used to have this man be held accountable for his brutal, vicious, hateful act.”
South Carolina officials have also said they were considering whether to seek the death penalty.
“Please don’t suggest that people in South Carolina will not render justice here, because we will,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN after the federal indictment. “Please don’t suggest for one moment that justice will not be delivered here without the Attorney General of the United States.”
Doug Jones, who prosecuted two white supremacists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, said the hate crime charges would play a valuable role in bringing justice in the South Carolina case.
“It’s important to play up the racial hatred as the genesis of this crime so people are reminded what hate can really do in our society,” Jones said in a phone interview. “People need to understand that hate is more than screaming at people and racial slurs. It kills.”
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Julia Edwards and Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla., and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio