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Case involving Charleston church shooter tests the limits of forgiveness

Posted June 6

Family members of the victims of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting captivated the country last year when they offered the attacker, Dylann Roof, forgiveness instead of fury.

"You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul," Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the women Roof killed, said during his court appearance on June 19, 2015, according to The Washington Post.

However, these same men and women must now accept federal and state prosecutors' plan to seek the death penalty, and some have already done so wholeheartedly.

"What would give me full closure would be if I were the one who pushed the plunger on the lethal injection, or if I were the one to pull the switch on the electric chair or if I was the one to open the valve on the gas chamber," said Steve Hurd, whose wife, Cynthia, was killed by Roof, to the Associated Press.

Hurd's rage, as well as the tacit support of other family members, surprised some observers who wondered why the urge for revenge often wins out over the desire to forgive.

"If the families of Roof's victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it — then why can't the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?" wrote author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a column for The Atlantic.

Faith leaders have been asking similar questions for centuries, leading many to view the death penalty as an essentially religious issue.

Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults (19 percent) say religious beliefs have the biggest influence on their thinking about the death penalty, according to a 2011 study from Pew Research Center.

"Religion is woven into this debate in complicated and often unpredictable ways. There's no single (path) from scripture to a political view," said Eric Owens, associated director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, to the Deseret News in February.

It's been more than 10 years since the government executed a convicted criminal, but Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced May 24 that the Justice Department would seek the death penalty for Roof.

"The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," she said in a written statement, according to USA Today.

"The 33-count federal indictment charged Roof with nine murders, three attempted murders and multiple firearms offenses," the article noted.

Roof also faces local charges, and he's been indicted by a South Carolina grand jury, USA Today reported. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty there, as well, when the case is heard in January 2017.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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