CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AP) — The white man accused of gunning down nine parishioners at a black church in South Carolina last month wants to plead guilty to over 30 federal charges, but his lawyer said in court Friday that he couldn’t advise his client to do so until prosecutors say whether they’ll seek the death penalty.
During a brief arraignment in federal court, defense attorney David Bruck said that he couldn’t counsel his client, Dylann Roof, to enter a guilty plea without knowing the government’s intentions.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant then entered a not guilty plea for Roof, 21, who faces 33 federal charges including hate crimes, weapons charges and obstructing the practice of religion. Appearing in court in a gray striped prison jumpsuit, his hands in shackles, Roof answered yes several times in response to the judge’s questions but otherwise didn’t speak.
“Mr. Roof has told us that he wishes to plead guilty,” Bruck said. “Until we know whether the government will be seeking the death penalty, we are not able to advise Mr. Roof.”
The federal prosecution, particularly on hate crimes, has been expected since the June 17 shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Early on, officials with the U.S. Department of Justice said they felt the case met the qualifications for a hate crime, and Roof was indicted by a federal grand jury about a month after the killings.
Roof appeared in photos waving Confederate flags and burning and desecrating U.S. flags. Federal authorities have confirmed his use of a personal manuscript in which he decried integration and used racial slurs to refer to blacks. The massacre at the church shocked the United States and set off a nationwide conversation about race relations and gun control.
Because South Carolina has no state hate-crimes law, federal charges were needed to adequately address a motive that prosecutors believe was unquestionably rooted in racial hate, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a news conference announcing Roof’s federal indictment.
Eighteen of the 33 charges against Roof could potentially carry the death penalty, while conviction on each of the others could mean a life prison sentence. Each charge also carries the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Also during Friday’s hearing, Marchant accepted Roof’s application as an indigent defendant — meaning the state will pay for his attorneys.
Marchant also heard briefly from victims’ family members, who at Roof’s bond hearing in state court expressed statements of mercy and forgiveness despite his alleged crimes. On Friday, several relatives made similar comments in federal court.
“We don’t hold no ill will,” Leroy Singleton, brother of slain Myra Thompson, said tearfully. “We’re going to let the system work it out.”
Gracyn Doctor, daughter of another victim, DePayne Middleton Doctor, said she misses her mother greatly but wouldn’t let Roof get the better of her.
“Even though he has taken the most precious thing in my life, he will not take my joy,” Doctor told the judge.
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