The alleged white supremacist accused of gunning down nine black parishioners at a Charleston church intends to plead guilty to the crime but will not do so until prosecutors say whether or not they will seek the death penalty, the defendant’s lawyer said Friday.
Lead defense attorney David Bruck said he could not advise Dylan Roof, 21, to declare his guilt in the massacre until learning if his client would be facing a potential capital punishment.
Absent a formal declaration by Roof, a federal magistrate entered not guilty pleas on his behalf for 33 federal charges, including for hate crimes.
The defendant appeared at the court session in a gray striped prison jumpsuit, his hands in shackles. He answered yes several times in response to the judge's questions but otherwise didn't speak.
Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant also heard briefly from family members of victims of the June 17 attack at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
More than two dozen relatives of the victims and survivors of last month's massacre packed the courtroom for Roof's arraignment.
The counts add to the raft of state murder and attempted murder counts he already faces. Some of the relatives came to the front of the courtroom to make emotional statements, some of them in tears.
"For the rest of his life I want him to hear my thoughts," said Tyrone Sanders, referring to the defendant.
"I am hurting inside for what he is accused of doing," said Sanders, father of victim Tywanza Sanders, 26, and husband of Felicia Sanders, who survived. "I want him to think about what I'm thinking and continue to think about it."
Neither federal nor state prosecutors have decided whether they will seek the death penalty if Roof is convicted.
"Roof has told us he wishes to plead guilty," Bruck told the court. "Until we know whether the government will seek the death penalty, we cannot advise Mr. Roof."
The federal charges are based on evidence that the 21-year-old suspect targeted the victims "because of their race and in order to interfere with their exercise of religion," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in announcing the indictment.
Roof expressed white power, anti-black sentiments in postings on social media and in an online manifesto, in which he wrote that he chose Charleston because "at one time [it] had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country."
"We believe he understands the tremendous crime that he committed and the heinousness of it," Eduardo Curry, an attorney representing the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said outside the courtroom, referring to Roof.
Al Jazeera and wire services