Dylann Storm Roof stared at the camera in front of him and blinked occasionally.
He saw a judge on a video screen and heard crying. But he couldn’t see the rest of the courtroom on the other end of the video link. He couldn’t see the people who fought through tears and stood up in the crowded room.
He heard the words of Felicia Sanders as she rose and spoke. Roof had been accused of killing her son and eight others as Sanders watched two nights earlier at a downtown Charleston church.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on your soul.”
The bond hearing Friday afternoon served as the first opportunity for family members to talk to the 21-year-old Eastover man suspected of fatally shooting the nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They spoke of hurt, grief and longing for a chance to say goodbye to the people they loved. They also offered forgiveness, despite the accusation that Roof, a white man, had carried out one of the worst American hate crimes of the generation at the historically black church.
Roof also could not see beyond the courtroom, where Charleston has been transformed by tragedy into a ground zero for the racial strife reignited in recent years by a call of “black lives matter.” He faces nine murder charges in the attack that some say exposed an underbelly of the Deep South that bubbled to the surface in a bloody way around 9 p.m. Wednesday at 110 Calhoun St.
The Confederate battle flag still flies on the Statehouse grounds, despite calls from critics nationwide to take it down. And some pointed to the bond judge who faced Roof as another example of deep-rooted problems here. The judge, who has been reprimanded for using the N-word in the past, called Roof’s family members victims, too.
“Saying that semblances of that ugly underbelly does not exist would be a disservice to the lives that were lost,” said Antonio Tillis, a longtime African studies professor brought to the College of Charleston amid the school’s turmoil over the hiring of a Confederacy memorabilia aficionado as its president. “We need to question our national identity and Americanism. Who gets to claim it? To hear a young man say that black people have taken over the country, we have to question that.”
But that man also couldn’t see the wall of flowers being built on the sidewalk in front of the church, each bouquet with a message from people in Sheridan, Wyo.; Crawfordsville, Ind.; and Madison, Miss. Black and white visitors from other states knelt next to residents from Charleston and cried as they penned messages on a banner. Roof also couldn’t hear what they said.
“Where is our country going?” Donna Lea Needham, 83, of Sanford, Fla., said as she cried. “How many times is hatred going to cause this kind of sorrow? This has gone on for long enough.”
That call on Calhoun Street echoed from the courtroom with the victims’ families, to Charleston City Hall, to California, where President Barack Obama again spoke out against the violence.
“It is not good enough to simply show sympathy,” he said. “We as a people have got to change. That’s how we honor those families.”
After the sun rose behind Emanuel AME Church on Friday, Gov. Nikki Haley stood in its shadow and told reporters that Roof should be put to death for what he was accused of doing there two nights before.
As the day wore on, more details of the episode emerged in the form of 10 arrest affidavits — one for each murder count and another for a charge of possessing a firearm:
Roof walked into the building after 8 p.m., a fanny pack slung around his waist. He sat among 12 people, all there to learn of the Bible’s spiritual teachings.
As the lesson wore on, he stood up and reached into the pack. A .45-caliber pistol emerged in his hand — one that CNN reported Friday that he bought in Charleston in a bid to start a race war — and he shot nine of the others there. Several bullets struck each one of them.
Before he walked out with the gun still in his hand and before he slipped off into the night only to be caught the next day in North Carolina, he said something that would prompt the FBI to probe the shooting as a hate crime.
“He stood over a witness,” the document stated, “and uttered a racially inflammatory statement.”
Knowing what Roof had been alleged to have done, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley stood in front of the church Friday not long after Haley did. He disagreed with the governor’s stance on the death penalty. Riley said, though, that if a prosecutor must seek the ultimate punishment, the massacre in a city he has touted as the world’s best would warrant it.
But for the area’s top prosecutor, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Friday was simply too soon for such a conversation; it was instead the time to rally around the victims’ families and the community.
“(The shooter) had this crazy idea that he would divide us,” Riley said. “All this did was make us more united and love each other even more.”
The Friday afternoon sun hung high above the dozens of journalists jammed tightly together as they videotaped and photographed loved ones of the slain churchgoers filing into the bond courthouse in North Charleston.
A drab, gray building nearby housed Roof in a unit set apart from the jail’s main population. In a cell nearby was Michael Slager, the former North Charleston policeman accused of murder after he shot Walter Scott in the back two months ago, the first case that made Charleston a focus in the talk about a racial divide among Americans.
On the television screen in front of them, the family members saw a man with hair more disheveled than it appeared on surveillance images reported to show him walking into and out of the church on Wednesday. But they saw the same bowl haircut that distinguished him in the eyes of Detective Richard Burckhardt, the experienced Charleston investigator who drafted Roof’s arrest paperwork.
Roof’s uncle and father had seen those pictures Thursday morning, and they called Charleston police, setting in motion a massive hunt that ended in his capture and put him in front of Charleston County Chief Magistrate James Gosnell on Friday.
The families and Roof listened as Gosnell, who seldom presides over initial bond hearings, launched into a speech. Charleston has a strong community with a big heart, he said. Its people are loving, and they will comfort all victims. But, he said, there are victims who were not in the crowd but thrown into the same “whirlwind” as the others.
“There are victims on this young man’s side of the family,” Gosnell said. “We must find it in our hearts at some point in time not only to help those who are victims but to also help his family.”
Gosnell’s comments would draw scorn from commentators nationwide who brought up what he said during a 2003 bond-reduction hearing in a drunken-driving case. He talked then about how “there are four kinds of people in this world: black people, white people, rednecks and n------.” He said later, when he faced the state high court’s reprimand, that it was an ill-considered attempt to get the defendant to change his life’s path.
He will not face Roof again in a courtroom. Before Friday’s hearing, the Supreme Court had already assigned 9th Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson to see the case through to a trial.
Gosnell’s comments Friday about shooting’s toll on Roof’s family passed without an audible mention in the courtroom.
After his speech, Gosnell turned to Roof, the young man in striped jail garb who answered the magistrate’s questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” He said little else.
The magistrate called out the name of each victim, asking if anyone in their families wanted to say something. Many stood.
One was Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, the church’s janitor. Collier will never get to hold Lance again, she said.
“You hurt me,” Collier told Roof. “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
Bethane Middleton Brown said she was very angry about the death of her sister, DePayne Middleton Doctor. But she’s a “work in progress,” she said.
“We are the family that love built,” she said. “We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”
Anthony Thompson implored Roof to change his ways “no matter what happens to you.”
Alana Simmons said her grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, and the others had died “at the hands of hate.” But she said the court system would not let hate win.
“This is proof ... that they live in love and their legacies will live in love,” she said. “Hate won’t win.”
Saying they were touched by the family members’ words, Roof’s loved ones sent out a statement later in the day through his attorneys, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington and Columbia lawyer Boyd Young. They extended their sympathies and said they hoped and prayed for healing nationwide.
“Words cannot express our shock, grief and disbelief,” they said. “We are devastated and saddened by what occurred.”
As the sun inched closer to the horizon beyond Emanuel AME Church later in the day, a Charleston man fell to his knees, clinched his hands and prayed for two minutes.
“Let’s all pray for peace,” Mark Kenzak, 65, said after he rose to his feet. “I think this shows that the people of Charleston share in that spirit.”
Ribbons had been hooked to the iron bars that separated mourners from the church where horrors unfolded earlier in the week. They each had a name: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons Sr.
The memorial grew as darkness fell on Charleston. People streamed to the site and placed vases choked with flowers. They dropped off balloons, crosses and cards.
It brought tears to Tai Wright, 22, a college classmate of Sanders’ but one of the many who surveyed the memorial and realized the incredible weight of what had happened this week.
“It really feels like a nightmare,” she said. “I’m just trying to wake up.”
Melissa Boughton and Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.