CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A federal magistrate on Friday entered a “temporary” not guilty plea for Dylann Roof on hate crime charges in the slaying of nine African-Americans at a South Carolina church, even as his lawyer said his client wanted to plead guilty.
The lead defense attorney, David Bruck, said he could not advise Roof, 21, to declare his guilt in the massacre until after prosecutors said whether they would seek capital punishment.
“Roof has told us he wishes to plead guilty,” Bruck told the court. “Until we know whether the government will seek the death penalty, we cannot advise Mr. Roof.”
The “not guilty” plea entered into the court record by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant on Roof’s behalf can be changed later. Final motions are due on Aug. 20.
“We believe he understands the tremendous crime that he committed and the heinousness of it,” Eduardo Curry, an attorney representing the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of last month’s massacre, said outside the courtroom.
More than two dozen survivors and relatives of the victims of last month’s killings attended the hearing, where Roof was arraigned on 33 federal hate crime and firearms charges.
The counts add to the raft of state murder and attempted murder counts he already faces. Roof has not yet entered a plea on the state charges.
Some of the relatives and survivors came to the front of the courtroom to make statements, many of them in tears.
“For the rest of his life I want him to hear my thoughts,” said Tyrone Sanders, referring to the defendant.
“I am hurting inside for what he is accused of doing,” said Sanders, father of victim Tywanza Sanders, 26, and husband of Felicia Sanders, who survived. “I want him to think about what I’m thinking and continue to think about it.”
At an earlier appearance in state court, family members riveted the country by expressing heartfelt forgiveness to Roof, saying their Christian faith compelled them to rise above their grief.
Their statements, coming just two days after the slayings, helped spark intense soul-searching in the United States over race relations and led to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds.
Neither federal nor state prosecutors have decided whether they will seek the death penalty if Roof is convicted.
The federal charges are based on evidence that the suspect targeted the victims “because of their race and in order to interfere with their exercise of religion,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said last week in announcing the indictment.
Roof planned the murders for months with the “goal of increasing racial tensions throughout the nation and seeking retribution for perceived wrongs he believed African-Americans had committed against white people,” Lynch said.
He singled out the nearly 200-year-old church known as “Mother Emanuel” because of its historical significance in the African-American community, Lynch said.
Roof signaled his criminal intent in a racist manuscript posted on his website, she said.
Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Jonathan Oatis