CHARLESTON. — A 21-year-old white man has been charged with nine counts of murder for an attack on a historic black South Carolina church, local police said yesterday, with media reporting that he had hoped his actions would incite a race war in the United States.
Dylann Roof was due to face a bail hearing later yesterday, where he was to appear by video link and also face a charge of possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, the Charleston Police Department said.
The charges come a day after his arrest in North Carolina, about 350km north of the nearly 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where he shot dead nine black worshippers.
US officials are investigating Roof’s attack, in which four ministers were killed including a Democratic state senator, as a hate crime. It came in a year of turmoil in the United States, where police killings of several unarmed black men has provoked angry national debates about race relations, policing and the criminal justice system.
Roof confessed to the attack and said he intended to set off new racial confrontations with his attack, CNN reported, citing a law enforcement source. Charleston Police spokesperson Charles Francis declined to comment on the reports of a confession.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told NBC’s Today show yesterday that she would prefer to see Roof tried on state charges and believed state prosecutors should pursue a death sentence.
“This is an absolute hate crime,” said Haley, a Republican. “We’ve been talking with the investigators because we’ve been going through the interviews, they said they looked pure evil in the eye.”
South Carolina is one of just five US states that does not have a hate crime law, which typically imposes additional penalties on crimes committed because of a victim’s race, gender or sexual orientation.
President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the attack stirred up “a dark part” of US history and illustrated the continuing dangers of the nation’s liberal gun laws, which gun-rights supporters say are protected by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
“After a tragedy we all get to sing and hold hands, but 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 church, known as “Mother Emanuel,” was founded in the early 19th century by black worshippers who were limited in how they could practice their faith at white-dominated churches.
Burned to the ground in the late 1820s when one of its founders drafted plans for a slave revolt, the church was later rebuilt.
Compounding anger over the incident, the South Carolina capital continues to fly the Confederate battle flag, that was the symbol of the pro-slavery South during the US Civil War.
In addition to the church’s leader and Democratic state Senator Clementa Pinckney, other victims included three pastors — DePayne Middleton Doctor (49); Sharonda Coleman Singleton (45) and Reverend Daniel Simmons (74).
Also killed were Cynthia Hurd (54), a public library employee Susie Jackson (87); Ethel Lance (70); Tywanza Sanders (26); and Myra Thompson (59), an associate pastor at the church, according to the county coroner.
Area residents, including a group of nuns, filed past the historic church early yesterday. Many tearfully offered prayers and left flowers near the line of yellow police tape, behind which law enforcement agents continued to gather evidence.
Social worker Jermaine Jenkins (25) stopped to pay his respects and said he believed the outpouring of public grief and support showed that Roof had failed in his goal of sparking fresh racial unrest.
“I don’t think he will succeed in creating a race war,” said Jenkins, who is black. — Reuters.