Some survivors and family members of those killed in a racially-motivated attack at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year are suing the FBI, arguing mistakes with the agency’s background check system allowed Dylann Roof to illegally buy the gun he is accused of using to kill nine people.
The wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, and Myra Thompson, along with the three witnesses who survived the attack, claim the FBI did not follow federal law by missing Roof’s previous arrest and admitted illegal prescription drug possession when it did the background check just two months before the attack.
“The victims and families hope that by bringing these actions, they can shine a very bright light on these shortcomings,” read a statement from Charleston attorney Andy Savage, “and prevent other individuals, families and communities from dealing with unfathomable and preventable loss and injury.”
The FBI admitted a few weeks after the June 2015 shooting that Roof should not have been able to buy the gun because he possessed drugs during a separate arrest in February of that year. Agency director James Comey said the mistake happened because the arresting agency was listed erroneously as Lexington County when it had actually been Columbia Police who made the arrest and brought Roof to the Lexington County jail.
Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon told media outlets a few days later that a Lexington County corrections officer later caught the error and made an internal change that properly cited the Columbia police department as the arresting agency. However, he said that information was not given to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which then would have then forwarded it to the FBI.
The wrong agency name meant the FBI’s background check examiner could not find Roof’s arrest record with Lexington County authorities when Roof purchased the gun in April. Thursday’s wrongful death lawsuit claims the FBI failed to do the proper check that federal law requires.
The mistakes have led Democratic lawmakers to call for increased time for background checks instead of the current three-day maximum. Supporters of the expanded checks have begun referring to the three-day limit as the “Charleston loophole” after the Emanuel AME attack. However, Republican lawmakers argue the incident points more to problems with government bureaucracy and that an extended timeframe would not have helped.
Roof is set to go on federal trial in November for hate crimes committed in the shootings. He could face the death penalty, if convicted.