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[CHARLESTON] Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black parishioners in a racially motivated attack at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.
"The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.
Dylann Roof, 22, is accused of opening fire on June 17, 2015, during a Bible study session at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The killings shook the country and intensified the debate about race in America.
He faces 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses. In a court filing, federal prosecutors accused him of holding racist views, targeting the victims because of their race and lacking remorse as factors justifying their decision.
His federal trial had been delayed while US prosecutors decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Defence attorneys have said he would plead guilty if he did not face the possibility of execution and that they could not advise him until federal prosecutors decided.
Roof's attorney, Michael O'Connell, declined to comment on the prosecution's decision when reached by phone on Tuesday.
Roof also faces the death penalty if convicted on separate, state murder charges in a trial set to begin in January.
Owing to their religious beliefs, some of the victims' families do not believe in the death penalty, while others felt it was appropriate, the state prosecutor trying the case said last September.
Steve Schmutz, an attorney representing families of three victims, said his clients "support whatever decision the US government is making in this case, and I'm sure they support this decision."
When Roof was charged days after the shooting, some relatives of the slain worshippers tearfully offered words of forgiveness during an initial court appearance. One asked God to have mercy on his soul, while others noted that the victims would have urged love.
Almost a year later, views diverged on the US government's death penalty decision, the local Post and Courier newspaper reported.
"It's a great message being sent by the government that this won't be tolerated," Kevin Singleton, whose mother was killed, told the newspaper.
The relative of another victim cited the Bible in calling for Roof to spend his life in prison rather than die.
Federal prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty against defendants. Only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past half century and none since 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The best-known of those was Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people.