WASHINGTON (AP) — The man accused of killing nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, was motivated by racial hatred and a desire for “notoriety” when he opened fire inside a historic house of worship, according to a federal grand jury indictment issued Wednesday that makes him eligible for the death penalty.
The 33-count federal indictment charges Dylann Roof, 21, with hate crimes, firearms violations and obstructing the practice of religion in the June 17 shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The federal counts, announced Wednesday by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, are in addition to state murder charges brought against Roof days after the shooting.
The Justice Department has not decided whether it will seek the death penalty against Roof, nor whether its prosecution will come before the state’s case. 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, Lynch said.
Roof, who is white, appeared in photos waving Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and purportedly wrote of fomenting racial violence. The indictment confirms his use of a personal manuscript in which he decried integration and used racial slurs to refer to blacks. Survivors told police that he used racial insults during the attack.
Roof, Lynch said, had for several months prior to the shootings conceived a goal of “increasing racial tensions throughout the nation and seeking retribution for perceived wrongs he believed African-Americans had committed against white people.”
To carry out those goals, he “decided to seek out and murder African-Americans because of their race,” Lynch said, adding he had purposefully selected the historic church to “ensure the greatest notoriety and attention to his actions.”
He took advantage of his victims’ generosity when they welcomed Roof into their Bible-study group, she said.
“The parishioners had Bibles. Dylann Roof had his .45-caliber Glock pistol, and eight magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets.”
Hate crime cases are often challenging for the government because it must prove that a defendant was primarily motivated by a victim’s race or religion as opposed to other factors frequently invoked by defense attorneys, such as drug addiction or mental illness.
Last year, a federal appeals court in Ohio overturned hate-crime convictions against Amish men and women accused in beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish who were thought to have defied the community leader.
The court held that the jury had received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks and that prosecutors should have had to prove the assaults wouldn’t have happened but for religious motives.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP