Charleston Church Shooting: Hate Crime, Terrorism, or Both?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 18, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Late last night, Dylann Roof opened fire on a bible study group at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof killed nine parishioners, including Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor and a state senator, and wounded three others.

Roof was apprehended in North Carolina this morning, and the Justice Department has already announced it will open a hate crime investigation into the shooting. Some are calling for the mass shooting to also be considered an act of domestic terrorism.

Here is how those laws could apply to this case.

Federal Hate Crime Statute

The DOJ would investigate Roof under the Civil Rights Act which defines a hate crime as:

"willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin."

In order to convict Roof, the DOJ would need to prove the shooting was based on the victims' race, and a few details have emerged to support this. Emanuel is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the south, with "one of the largest and oldest black congregations," and was implicated in a thwarted slave rebellion in the 1820s.

Roof also prayed with the bible group for an hour prior to the shooting, during which he allegedly told the group, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." And Roof's Facebook profile photo shows him wearing a jacket with the flags of Apartheid Era South Africa and Rhodesia, the unrecognized white supremacist country in what is now known as Zimbabwe.

The combination of these facts could be enough to prove Roof's shooting was racially motivated.

Federal Terrorism Statute

The US Code defines domestic terrorism as "activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended -- (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

The shooting is obviously dangerous to human life and against the law, and Roof's choice of location and statements beforehand could be understood as intended to intimidate people other than his immediate victims. Whether federal authorities treat Roof like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (or Eric Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh) remains to be seen.

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