CHARLESTON (REUTERS) - As the young white man charged with murdering nine people inside a historic black church in South Carolina stood silently and expressionless at a court hearing on Friday, relatives of the slain worshippers faced him one by one, offering tearful words of grief and forgiveness.
Dylann Roof, 21, who authorities say spent an hour in Bible study with parishioners at the nearly 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston before opening fire on them, appeared via video feed before a magistrate judge who ordered him held without bond.
Dressed in a black-and-white prison uniform and flanked by two guards in body armour, Roof exhibited no visible emotion during the proceedings, even as he was addressed by loved ones of the victims. He was formally charged with nine counts of murder and a weapons offense.
"May God have mercy on your soul," said Felicia Sanders, whose 26-year-old son Tywanza Sanders was the youngest person to die in Wednesday's rampage. "You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts."
Felicia Sanders was said by a family friend, according to an interview with CNN, to have survived the shooting rampage by lying on the floor and playing dead as she cradled another survivor, her 5-year-old granddaughter, while her son's blood soaked her clothes.
According to friends and family, Tywanza Sanders pleaded with the gunman as he paused to reload his weapon, saying "you don't have to do this," to which the suspect replied: "No, you've raped our women and taken our country. I've got to do what I've got to do."
Roof stared blankly, and glanced downward occasionally, as Sanders and four other family members of the gunshot victims spoke of how he had been welcomed into to the church by the nine people he has been charged with slaying.
The attack at the church nicknamed "Mother Emanuel" for its key role in African-American history followed a wave of protests across the United States in recent months over police killings and excessive force against unarmed black men, focusing attention on race relations and bias in the criminal justice system.
The bloodshed in Charleston, where residents packed an arena for a prayer vigil late Friday, marked the latest in a series of fatal US mass shootings. The violence has renewed a national debate between advocates of tighter controls on gun possession and supporters of unfettered access to firearms they assert is constitutionally protected under the Second Amendment.
"The elephant in the room is guns. South Carolina and the country have gone gun-crazy," said state Representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents Charleston. "How many times do we need to come together? How many times do we need to unite?"
President Barack Obama, addressing the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, said the latest shooting exposed the "blight" of racism still present in America, and he railed against critics who have accused him of politicising a tragedy to talk about tougher gun laws.
"You don't see murder on this kind of scale, with this kind of frequency, in any other advanced nation on Earth," he said.
The US Justice Department is investigating the attack as both a hate crime and potential act of terrorism, spokeswoman Emily Pierce said on Friday.
- 'No room for hating' -
Roof said little during his initial court appearance, except to answer, "Yes, sir," or "No, sir" in response to questions from the judge, and to give his age.
The victims' family members filed into the courthouse in twos and threes before Roof's appearance, appearing composed as they stared into the video monitor at the defendant, who was arrested without incident in Shelby, North Carolina, on Thursday after 14 hours at large.
In addition to Tywanza Sanders, the massacre's victims included Democratic state Senator Clementa Pinckney, 41; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson 59, and Daniel Simmons, 74.
Roof could be sentenced to death if he is convicted, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, urged prosecutors to seek capital punishment.
Still, family members offered words of mercy during the brief court appearance. "I will never talk to her ever again. I will never ever hold her again," said Lance's daughter, Nadine Collier, who went on to tell Roof: "You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you."
The defendant's relatives, in their first public comment since the shooting, issued a statement through Roof's lawyer offering their "deepest sympathies and condolences" to the victims' families. "Words cannot express our shock, grief and disbelief as to what happened that night. We are devastated and saddened by what occurred," the statement said.
The racially charged nature of the shooting has had a special resonance in Charleston, once one of the largest ports for the US slave trade and the site of the first shots fired during the American Civil War, at the battle of Fort Sumter, a Union garrison in Charleston Harbour.
"This was not merely a mass shooting, not merely a matter of gun violence, this was a racial hate crime and must be confronted as such," said Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 to confront lynchings in the United States.
Brooks expressed anger that the South Carolina capitol continued to fly the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of the pro-slavery South during the US Civil War, and called for it to be removed.
On Friday night, hundreds of mourners filled an indoor arena on the campus of the College of Charleston in a prayer vigil for the shooting victims. At one point, at the behest of the choir director, the racially mixed crowd rose to sing two hymns.
Earlier in the day, passersby continued to flock to the AME church that remained a crime scene, many struggling to understand what motivated the attack.
The AME church was founded in the early 19th century by black worshippers who were limited in how they could practice their faith at white-dominated churches. The church was rebuilt after being burned down in the late 1820s when one of its founders drafted plans for a slave revolt. "I grew up when racism was just a way of life," said Mary Meynardie, 90, who is white, as she stopped by the police tape that still surrounded the church.
"I wouldn't have been surprised if it was somebody 60, 70 years old who had that much hate, but where does this hate come from?"