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Families of Charleston church massacre victims reach $88 million settlement with DOJ

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In June 2015, a self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Today, the Justice Department announced that it has agreed to pay $88 million to the victims' families. NPR Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas is here to tell us more. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: What more can you tell us about this settlement?

LUCAS: Well, litigation over this has been going on since 2016, but this agreement came together in the last few weeks in negotiations between the Justice Department and the families of the 14 victims. The payments ranged from $6 to $7.5 million for those who were killed in the shooting. For survivors, the payments are $5 million per claimant. The total comes to $88 million, a number that carries symbolic value as well. The Mother Emanuel shooter, Dylann Roof, was a self-proclaimed white supremacist. The number 88 is of particular significance for white supremacists. There's actually a photo of Roof wearing a T-shirt with 88 on it taken before the shooting. Bakari Sellers is an attorney for the victims' families. He said the settlement here pushes back on that sort of hatred and that ideology.

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BAKARI SELLERS: By saying that we're taking this tragedy that they tried to tear our country apart with and build Black communities and generational wealth.

MCCAMMON: And Ryan, why were the victims' families suing the government?

LUCAS: The families allege that the FBI had failed in its background check of Roof, which allowed him to buy a gun. After buying the weapon, Roof attended a Bible study session at Mother Emanuel in June 2015, and he opened fire on the congregants. He killed nine people. All of them were Black. Roof was convicted and sentenced to death. The families of the Emanuel nine plus five survivors then sued the government, arguing that the FBI's background check system for gun buyers failed to flag Roof as someone who should not have been allowed to purchase a gun legally. Now, in the settlement, the FBI does not admit fault. But Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that the department has sought to bring justice to the community.

MCCAMMON: Representatives for the victims spoke today outside the Justice Department here in Washington, D.C., Ryan. What did they say?

LUCAS: They expressed a lot of gratitude to the Justice Department and to the attorney general, who they said had put a priority on civil rights in the Biden administration. Survivors and the family members of victims also spoke outside the department today. One of them was Jennifer Pinckney, who was there with her two daughters. Pinckney's husband, Clementa, was the pastor at Mother Emanuel Church. He was also a South Carolina state senator. He was killed in the shooting. Pinckney says she welcomes this settlement, but she said she'd trade it for her husband in a heartbeat.

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JENNIFER PINCKNEY: If I had the opportunity to bring Clementa back, I'd switch. You can all take the settlement. Bring my husband back to me. Bring their father back to them.

LUCAS: Pinckney's daughter, Eliana, also spoke. Here's a little bit of what she had to say.

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ELIANA PINCKNEY: The actions and the steps that the government is taking right now to acknowledge that this is a horrible thing - they can't bring my father back. That's never going to happen. But they're doing whatever they can to acknowledge the fact that this hurts.

LUCAS: She said that for her, as a young Black woman, it means a lot that the government acknowledged that racism exists and that it actively try to combat racism. And here with this settlement, she says, the government isn't sitting in silence. She says it's paying attention. She says it valued her father's life, as well as the lives of the others who died that day at Mother Emanuel.

MCCAMMON: NPR Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.