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Relative of Church Shooting Victim Tells Suspect: 'I Forgive You'

  • VOA News

Raw emotion filled a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom Friday as relatives of the nine victims of the shooting massacre at Emanuel AME Church addressed the man charged with their deaths.

“You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.” 70-year-old Ethel Lance’s daughter told an impassive Dylann Roof. Her voice dipped and soared with pain. “But God forgive you. I forgive you.” Ethel Lance had been church sexton at Emanuel.

Roof watched remotely via a video hookup in a boxlike room where he was flanked by two heavily armed law enforcement officers, occasionally dropping his eyes.

The Victims

Clementa Pinckney, 41, was the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and had been a state legislator for 19 years. Pinckney began preaching at age 13 and was first appointed pastor at 18. He was named pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2010.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, was a part-time minister at Emanuel AME Church and worked as a speech pathologist at Goose Creek High School, where she was also the girls track coach. The mother of three had run track herself as a student at South Carolina State University, helping lead her team to a conference championship.

Ethel Lance, 70, was a Charleston native and a member of the church for most of her life. She retired after working for more than 30 years on the housekeeping staff at the city's Gaillard Auditorium. She served as a sexton at the church for the last five years, helping to keep the historic building clean.

Susie Jackson, 87, was a longtime church member and sang in the choir. According to the Charleston Post and Courier, Jackson was a regular at the Wednesday evening Bible study where the attack occurred. Her cousin, Ethel Lance, and nephew, Tywanza Sanders, also died in the shooting.

Cynthia Hurd, 54, managed a branch of the Charleston County library system. In her honor, the system closed all of its branches Thursday, the day after her death. She was looking toward retirement after 31 years of library work. Hurd’s 55th birthday would have been Sunday.

DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was an enrollment counselor at Southern Wesleyan University's Charleston campus. In January, returned to the African Methodist Episcopal Church after attending a Baptist church for years. Middleton-Doctor was a minister in the AME church and led the Wednesday night Bible studies there.

Tywanza Sanders, 26, graduated last year from Allen University, where he studied business. Hours before the shooting, he put his final post on his Instagram account, a meme with a quote from Jackie Robinson: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.''

Myra Thompson, 59 was the wife of the vicar of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston. According to the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, of which Thompson was a member, she had 10 siblings – nine sisters and a brother.

Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74, was the retired pastor of Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw, S.C., and was on the staff at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Simmons daughter-in-law told ABC News that Simmons attended the Wednesday night Bible study every week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Charged with nine counts of murder, Roof will remain in prison, having accepted a “no bond arrangement” for the murder counts. Bail of $1 million was set for an additional weapons charge.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night into our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of the youngest of the shooting victims, Tywanza Sanders, 26.

Sanders was a recent college graduate who appears on Facebook in a sideways baseball cap next to a banner that reads, “Your dreams are calling you.”

The shooting victims — six women and three men — included an 87-year-old woman. Three other people were wounded.

A relative of one of the victims said that Roof, who is white, told the study group, whose members were all black, that "you've raped our women and you're taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do."

Roof, 21, was arrested in neighboring North Carolina on Thursday after he'd fled by car. His next court appearance will be in October.

Differences on punishment

Federal authorities announced Friday that they were investigating the killings as a possible act of domestic terrorism, as well as a hate crime, "from all angles," a Department of Justice spokesman said.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told NBC's "Today" show on Friday that she would prefer to see Roof tried on state charges and believed state prosecutors should pursue a death sentence.

However, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, speaking at a news conference later Friday, said, "I'm personally not a proponent of the death penalty."

"I think it collectively over time adds to violence," Riley said. "I think people who commit serious crimes should lose their freedom forever, but that's the law in South Carolina, no doubt it will be sought."

Riley also announced that a fund had been set up for the families of those killed in the attack.

Americans have to 'fix this'

In a second take on the shooting deaths Friday, President Barack Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Franciso that it was not good enough to "show sympathy." Americans, he said, have to "reckon with what happened."

As he did the day before, the president framed his reaction in terms of curbing the use of guns, but was more emphatic, verging on anger. He said he refused to act as if shootings like the ones in Charleston were the "new normal."

Calling for a change in attitudes, he said, "We have to have a conversation about this and fix this."

The president also for the first time spoke about race in relation to the shootings: "Racism remains a blight we have to combat together."

At Mother Emanuel

A spontaneous memorial for the victims is growing outside Mother Emanuel, as the church is affectionately known, as people bring flowers, balloons and placards in remembrance of the victims.

VOA's Amanda Scott, reporting from Charleston, said that strangers of all ages and races embraced each other, offering their support and vowing not to allow the tragedy to tear their city apart.

"Our message to our community, our whole community, is we appreciate all the love and support, but truly speaking we didn't expect any less because the people here are like the climate — they are warm, they're caring, they're loving," Marlene Coakley Jenkins, sister of victim Myra Thompson, who led the Bible study the night of the shooting, told VOA.

The shooting marks one of the most notorious attacks on a black church in the South since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls and helped galvanize the U.S. civil rights movement. The bombing was tied to the Ku Klux Klan.

Emanuel AME Church was founded in 1816 after splitting from the city's white Methodist Episcopal church, making it one of the oldest African-American congregations in the southern United States.

​VOA's Amanda Scott contributed to this story from Charleston, South Carolina.

Watch related video report by VOA's Zlatica Hoke

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