WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced federal hate crime charges Wednesday against the 21-year-old suspect in the Charleston church massacre, alleging that Dylann Roof sought to ignite racial tensions across the country by targeting Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church because of its local and historical significance.
The 33-count indictment charges Roof with nine murders, three attempted murders and multiple firearms offenses as part of a long-planned assault in which Roof allegedly singled out victims "because of their race and in order to interfere with their exercise of their religion.''
Federal charges, which follow a murder indictment lodged by a South Carolina grand jury, carry the prospect of a death sentence. But Lynch said no decision had been made on whether to seek the death penalty. The attorney general also said no decision had been reached on whether local or federal authorities would proceed first with Roof's prosecution.
Lynch suggested that federal investigators had gathered evidence that Roof's alleged plan of assault specifically included the iconic church because of its meaning to African Americans.
"On that summer evening, Dylann Roof found his targets, African Americans engaged in worship,'' Lynch said, referring to the June 17 attack on a bible study session. "The parishioners had bibles. Dylann Roof had his 45-caliber Glock pistol and eight magazines loaded with hollow point bullets...Dylann Roof drew his pistol and opened fire on them.''
Federal authorities began working with local investigators immediately after the shooting, and within hours of the attack Attorney General Loretta Lynch launched the inquiry into whether the accused gunman was motivated by racial bias.
Since Roof's capture 14 hours after the rampage, investigators have recovered racially charged writings allegedly authored by the suspect and photographs showing Roof with the Confederate battle flag and the handgun allegedly used in the attack.
Associates of the suspect have asserted that Roof sought to ignite a race war.
Roof's arrest also prompted fresh examinations of public symbols of racial hatred in South Carolina and other communities throughout the South, leading to this month's removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds.