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Relatives confront shooting suspect

Published 19/06/2015

Church shooting suspect Dylann Roof after his arrest (AP)
Church shooting suspect Dylann Roof after his arrest (AP)

Relatives of the nine black community leaders shot down during a Bible study session confronted the shooting suspect today during his initial court hearing, and spoke of love.

"I forgive you, my family forgives you," said Anthony Thompson. "We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now."

Dylan Storm Roof, who faces nine counts of murder, appeared by video from the county jail in South Carolina, looking sombre in a striped jumpsuit and speaking only briefly in response to the judge's questions.

Roof was ordered to be held on bail of one million dollars (£630,000) on the weapons charge pending another hearing by another judge on the murder charges.

Felecia Sanders survived the Wednesday night attack by pretending to be dead, but lost her son Tywanza. She also spoke from the judge's courtroom, where Roof's image appeared on a television screen.

"We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fibre in my body hurts and I'll never be the same," Sanders told Roof.

"Tywanza was my hero," Sanders said, but even she showed some kindness as she confronted the man accused of killing her son. "As we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you."

Roof looked sad and bowed his head slightly, but showed no other emotion as the relatives spoke.

Their remarkable comments seemed in keeping with a spirit evident on the streets of Charleston today, where people built a memorial and planned a vigil to repudiate whatever a gunman would hope to accomplish by attacking the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the nation's most important African-American sanctuaries.

"A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he'd be able to divide, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more," Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr said as he described plans for the evening vigil at a sports arena.

South Carolina governor. Nikki Haley said the state will "absolutely" want the death penalty.

A steady stream of people took flowers and notes and shared their thoughts at a growing memorial in front of the church, which president Barack Obama called "a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America".

"This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such," the Rev Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said today in Charleston.

Roof, 21, had complained while getting drunk on vodka recently that "blacks were taking over the world" and that "someone needed to do something about it for the white race", according to Joey Meek, who tipped off the FBI when he saw his friend on surveillance images.

Roof was arrested in North Carolina after an alert motorist recognised him, and returned in shackles to a county jail where he was being held next to the cell of Michael Slager, the white former police officer charged with fatally shooting black motorist Walter Scott.

The victims included Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who doubled as the church's lead pastor, and eight others who each played multiple roles in their communities and families: ministers and coaches, teachers and a librarian, counsellors and choir singers and the church sexton who kept the historic building clean.

"The suspect entered the group and was accepted by them, as they believed that he wanted to join them in this Bible study," Charleston County coroner Rae Wilson said. Then, "he became very aggressive and violent".

The Justice Department is investigating whether to file federal hate crime charges, although attorney general Loretta Lynch said state prosecutions are sometimes more appropriate. Obama pointed to lax gun controls as a factor, and complained that Washington politics have shut down efforts to require universal background checks for gun purchases.

Most of the presidential candidates avoided mentioning guns at all.

On his Facebook page, Roof displayed the flags of defeated white-ruled regimes, posing with a Confederate flags plate on his car and wearing a jacket with stitched-on flag patches from apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe.

Roof was arrested in February after workers said he appeared dressed entirely in black and asking strange questions at the Columbiana shopping mall. He was charged with possessing suboxone, a drug typically used to treat heroin addiction. A trespassing charge was added after he showed up again in April, prompting a three-year ban from the mall.

Spilling blood inside the "Mother Emanuel" church, founded in 1816, evoked painful memories nationwide that black churches have so often suffered from racist violence.

White landowners burned the church in 1822 after one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organise a slave revolt. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War, then rebuilt and grew stronger, eventually winning campaigns for voting rights and political representation.

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