Attorney: Magistrate’s sympathy for accused killer’s family was compassion

Dylann Roof appeared Friday at bond court in North Charleston. He is charged with nine counts of murder and a firearms charge in the shooting deaths at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.

The Charleston County magistrate with a history of participating in Confederate re-enactments and using racial slurs encouraged sympathy last week for the family of a white man accused of slaying nine black churchgoers because he wanted to “start the healing process” by uniting two sides, his attorney said.

Chief Magistrate James Gosnell’s comments came Friday during a 1-minute, 14-second speech before a bond hearing for 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who faces nine murder counts in the June 17 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.

“There are victims on this young man’s side of the family,” Gosnell said. “We must find it in our heart at some point in time to not only help those who are victims but to also help his family as well.”

Gosnell declined to expand on his statement or respond to the controversy it sparked, his attorney said, because he wants to avoid a public spat with national news media. The attorney, Lionel Lofton, said the magistrate’s words show only that he understands the predicament of everyone touched by the shooting.

“He didn’t mean anything to slight the victims of this terrible tragedy; it was his attempt to start the healing process,” the Charleston lawyer said. “He’s just a compassionate guy, and he just feels sorry for everybody.”

The FBI is investigating the shooting as a hate crime. Roof has appeared on websites holding the Confederate battle flag and has been quoted deriding black people.

Gosnell’s statement last week drew rebukes from observers nationwide, including an attorney for one victim’s family who attended the proceeding. Critics on cable news networks and local activists said his words exposed an ugly root of racial bias in South Carolina. His speech also prompted a closer examination of his past. Some have called for his resignation or for the S.C. Supreme Court to step in and remove him from office.

Chief Justice Jean Toal did not respond to a request for comment.

Gosnell rarely oversees initial bond hearings, but his involvement in Roof’s proceeding came at the request of the 9th Judicial Circuit’s chief administrative judge, Kristi Harrington, Gosnell’s attorney said. Magistrates like him are appointed to four-year terms by the governor to handle bond hearings and low-level criminal trials. They are not required to have a law degree. Gosnell, who is not a lawyer, typically presides over preliminary hearings.

While Lofton said the remarks Friday were standard for the bond hearings he oversees, Charleston attorney Andy Savage referred to them in public Facebook posts as “unprecedented and unwelcome” and labeled Gosnell as a “presiding pompous judge.”

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said she wondered if Gosnell would have made the same comments to show compassion for the family of a black suspect. She called for him to step down.

“He feels sympathy for a family whose son is still alive. Other families are burying nine people,” said Scott, who knew several of the church victims. “Here in 2015, we have someone with that mindset on the bench, and we wonder why black folks go to prison longer than white folks. ... When we find those things in any segment of the community, it needs to be ripped out.”

Gosnell’s attorney said the scrutiny targeting his client after the hearing came from the media’s bid to provoke controversy. The Post and Courier reported the comments on Friday.

But the inspection of Gosnell’s past has come amid sustained pressure against state lawmakers to rid the Capitol grounds of the battle flag seen by many as a symbol of racism.

During a 2003 bond-reduction hearing for a black defendant, Gosnell recalled what a black sheriff’s deputy had once told him. “There are four kinds of people in this world: black people, white people, red necks and n------,” he said then, according to court documents.

Gosnell later acknowledged that his words amounted to an ill-considered attempt to encourage the defendant to change his path in life. But they garnered a public reprimand two years later from the S.C. Supreme Court. Lofton and Savage, the lawyer now critical of him, represented him during the disciplinary process.

Shortly after that, at a 2004 burial for the eight crew members of the sunken Confederate submarine Hunley, Gosnell appeared in period garb and sang the hymn “Going Home.” College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, then a state senator, delivered the homily.

But such elements of the magistrate’s past have nothing to do with the bond hearing Friday, Lofton argued.

“Whether he’s a Confederate history buff or a World War II history buff ... it really has no bearing on this case,” Lofton said. “Let’s just pray and hope the victims of this tragedy can commence the healing process instead of bringing things up to fan the flames and stir the pot.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.