South Carolina church massacre trial delayed as death penalty mulled

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Survivors Divided on Death Penalty for Dylann Roof

CHARLESTON, S.C., April 5 (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday granted U.S. prosecutors' request for trial delay as it considers whether to seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine parishioners last summer at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in what prosecutors say was a hate crime.

SEE ALSO: White suspect charged with murder in killings at black US church

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel urged the federal government to make a decision soon on whether they would pursue the death penalty for Dylann Roof, 22, who plans to plead guilty if he will not be facing the possibility of execution. Gergel said he could set a trial date at some point in the interest of a speedy trial.

"There are victims here," Gergel said. "They have a right to put this behind them."

Roof, who faces 33 federal hate crime and firearms charges, is accused of opening fire during a June 17 Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a crime that sparked a fierce social debate about race and gun control in the United States.

Photos from the scene:

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Charleston SC shooting, scene and suspect - Dylann Roof
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South Carolina church massacre trial delayed as death penalty mulled
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in Charleston, S.C, on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old man accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance Friday, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP, Pool)
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in North Charleston, S.C, on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old man accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance Friday, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP, Pool)
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
This photo provided by Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof, Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday in the slayings of several people Wednesday, including the pastor, at a prayer meeting inside The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
This April 2015 photo released by the Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center shows Dylann Roof, 21. Charleston Police identified Roof as the shooter who opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing several people. (Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center via AP)
This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department, Thursday, June 18, 2015. A man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including the pastor in an assault that authorities are calling a hate crime. The shooter remained at large Thursday. (Photo via Charleston Police Department)
This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department, Thursday, June 18, 2015. A man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including the pastor in an assault that authorities are calling a hate crime. The shooter remained at large Thursday. (Charleston Police Department via AP)
The Emanuel AME Church is viewed behind a police vehicle on June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the Church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer holds up a tape in front of the Emanuel AME Church June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Map locates Charleston, S.C., site of a church shooting; 3c x 3 inches; 146 mm x 76 mm;
A view ofthe Emanuel AME Church is seen June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Map locates Charleston, S.C., site of a church shooting; 1c x 2 inches; 46.5 mm x 50 mm;
The sun begins to rise behind the steeple of Emanuel AME Church, Thursday, June 18, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. On Wednesday, a white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church, killing multiple people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A man kneels across the street from where police gather outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (Wade Spees/The Post And Courier via AP)
Surreace Cox, of North Charleston, S.C., holds a sign during a prayer vigil down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police talk to a man outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, inCharleston, S.C. (Wade Spees/The Post And Courier via AP)
A passing motorist looks out her window as she stops at an intersection down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A man looks on as a group of people arrive inquiring about a shooting across the street Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Chaplain James St. John, center, leads senators in prayer, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. State Sen. Clementa Pinckney was one of those killed Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2012, file photo, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, right, talks to a supporter during a break in a hearing protesting his re-election in Columbia, S.C. A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside an historic black church, in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing multiple people, including Pinckney, the church's pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)
State Senator Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) gets emtional as he sits next to the draped desk of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney was one of those killed, Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, right, stands next to Police Chief Gregory Mullen as he addresses the media down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Lisa Doctor joins a prayer circle down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
The steeple of Emanuel AME Church is visible as police close off a section of Calhoun Street early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Charleston Emergency Management Director Mark Wilbert holds a flier distributed to media, Thursday, June 18, 2015, with surveillance footage of a suspect wanted in the connection of a shooting Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church during a news conference, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Images on a flier provided to media, Thursday, June 18, 2015, by the Charleston Police Department show surveillance footage of a suspect wanted in connection with a shooting Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church inCharleston, S.C. (Courtesy of Charleston Police Department via AP)
The desk of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney is draped in black cloth with a single rose and vase, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney was one of those killed Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Investigators work outside the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the scene of a shooting at Emanuel AME Church, Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church, killing multiple people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A distraught man is comforted as a group of concerned people arrive inquiring about a shooting across the street Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen speaks during a news conference, Thursday, June 18, 2015, following Wednesday's shooting at Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C. Police released surveillance video of a possible suspect and vehicle in the fatal shooting of multiple people at the historic black church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An FBI agent walks across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray down the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police close off a section of Calhoun Street near the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police walk down the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A police officer uses a flashlight while searching the area following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said he understood the Justice Department deliberations on whether to seek the death penalty for Roof had reached the desk of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who will announce the decision.

"This is obviously a very important decision and one that's being taken quite deliberately," Richardson said.

Roof's attorney, David Bruck, said if the death penalty is ruled out, there would be no need for a trial because Roof would plead guilty.

Gergel also had delayed Roof's trial in February at the request of his defense, which needed more time to prepare. The Justice Department also was still considering the death penalty.

The Justice Department declined further comment on Tuesday.

Some family members of victims and a survivor of the shootings attended Tuesday's hearing but Roof did not.

Roof had been linked to white supremacist views and Lynch has said the federal charges against him are based on evidence he targeted his victims because of their race, obstructing their exercise of religion.

South Carolina prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Roof when he is scheduled to go on trial for murder on July 11.

In a related case, defense attorneys and prosecutors said they could be ready by mid-summer for the trial of Roof's friend, Joseph Meek, charged with concealing knowledge of a crime and lying to an FBI agent after the shooting. A trial date was not set.

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