The Families of the Charleston Massacre Victims Just Settled With the Justice Department for a Meaningful $88 Million
On Thursday, the Justice Department reached a $88 million settlement between the families of nine South Carolina victims killed in an attack that was racially motivated on a church. The deal, which still faces a judge’s final approval, was reached after the families and survivors of the attack alleged that the FBI’s delay in discovering that shooter Dylann Roof should not have been allowed to possess a firearm led to him purchasing the handgun he used in the mass shooting.
Bakari Sellers, an attorney for the families, tells TIME that they chose the amount of $88 million for a specific reason—that was the number of bullets Roof had supplied himself with for the attack. Eighty-eight is also a number white supremacists use as a code for “Heil Hitler,” as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We didn’t necessarily know we were going to land on that number. It’s rooted in such deep hatred and racism and white supremacy. But now, it’s going to represent generational wealth for Black communities in the deep South,” Sellers says. “I want people to remember that this was done all because they were Black.”
On June 17, 2015, Roof—a self-proclaimed white supremacist—barged into the Mother Emanuel AME Church and killed nine people. Roof was found guilty of multiple offenses, including murder and damage to religious property. Roof became the first to die for federal hate crimes. The victims’ families, along with five survivors who were inside the church during the attack, sued the government over wrongful death and physical injuries related to the shooting, an Oct. 28 DOJ press release noted. In 2015, the FBI admitted Roof shouldn’t have been allowed to purchase a firearm due to his prior arrest history. James Comey, at the time the FBI director, stated that the problem was because of a flawed background check system.
The victims’ families are expected to receive settlements ranging from $6 million to $7.5 million per claimant, and survivors are expected to receive $5 million per claimant, according to the DOJ. The deal is still awaiting a judge’s final approval. Sellers states that victims will get $63million and survivors $25 million out of $88 million.
“The mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church was a horrific hate crime that caused immeasurable suffering for the families of the victims and the survivors,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in the DOJ’s Oct. 28 press release. “Since the day of the shooting, the Justice Department has sought to bring justice to the community, first by a successful hate crime prosecution and today by settling civil claims.”
Joe Biden unveiled a comprehensive strategy in June to fight gun violence. It included strengthening gun background checks and a more robust gun background check system. While Sellers acknowledges that the Biden Administration “won’t be able to right a wrong” in the case of the Charleston Massacre, he is optimistic that “they can work to make sure this never happens again.”
“With this administration, I am not only optimistic about the way that they treat gun violence and this issue of background checks—but they’re also trying to stamp out white domestic terror and white supremacy,” Sellers says.