(CN) – A federal grand jury has returned a 33-count indictment against the lone suspect in the murder of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., charging him a multitude of hate crimes and with interfering with the victims’ exercise of their religion.
The indictment announced Wednesday afternoon charges Dylan Storm Roof with nine murders and three attempted murders under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
In announcing the indictment, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that Roof planned his attack on Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church over the course of several months, and ” conceived of his goal of increasing racial tensions throughout the nation and seeking retribution for perceived wrongs he believed African Americans had committed against white people.
“To carry out these twin goals of fanning racial flames and exacting revenge, Roof further decided to seek out and murder African Americans because of their race,” Lynch continued. “An essential element of his plan, however, was to find his victims inside of a church, specifically an African-American church, to ensure the greatest notoriety and attention to his actions.
This federal hate crimes law prohibits using a dangerous weapon to cause bodily injury, or attempting to do so, on the basis of race or color.
The Shepard Byrd Act was enacted specifically to vindicate the unique harms caused by racially motivated violence.
Roof is also charged with nine murders and three attempted murders under an additional federal hate crimes statute that prohibits the use or threat of force to obstruct any person’s free exercise of their religious beliefs.
Finally, the alleged gunman has been charged with multiple counts of using a firearm in the commission of these racially motivated murders and attempted murders.
If convicted on the new charges, Roof could face the death penalty, though Lynch said no decision has been made on whether to seek the ultimate penalty. The alternative would be life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Lynch said the Justice Department will follow its “usual rigorous protocol to thoroughly consider all factual and legal issues” before determining what punishment to seek.
She said the decision will “necessarily involve counsel for the defendant Roof.”
“In addition, consultation with the victims’ families is an important part of this decision making process and no decision will be made before conferring with them,” the attorney general said.
Roof, who is being held without bail in the Charleston County Jail in North Charleston, also faces nine state charges of murder, three of attempted murder, and a weapons possession charge.
He allegedly said he was in contact with white supremacist groups before the shooting, and that he carried out the murders to start a race war.
He has also been linked to a website on which he posted a lengthy racist manifesto and photographs of himself posing with a Confederate flag and the .45-caliber pistol that is purportedly the murder weapon.
On July 16, Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson set a tentative trial date for Roof of July 11, 2016 on the state charges. It’s unclear how the imposition of federal charges will effect that date, or whether the government intends to allow the state trial to play out before the start of a federal trial
The alleged gunman has yet to enter a plea for the charges against him. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she has not yet decided whether to pursue the death penalty against Roof.
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