Emanuel 9 families, attorney react to $88 million settlement

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Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 7:02 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The families of the nine people fatally shot in June 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina reached an $88 million settlement with the Justice Department on Thursday in lawsuits alleging that federal examiners failed to prevent the shooter from obtaining the weapon used in the massacre.

It’s one of the largest civil rights settlements in the history of the nation.

The settlements for each of the victims’ families range from $6 million to $7.5 million per claim, and survivors will receive $5 million per claim.

William “Billy” Wilkins, an attorney at Nexsen Pruet and the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, argued before the Fourth Circuit on behalf of the families who lost their lives in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting.

He said the first emotion he felt in light of the settlement was one of satisfaction, knowing that these courageous South Carolinians can find some measure of justice through the news.

Eliana Pinckney lost her father, pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, in the shooting.

“My sister and I are going to go home realizing that the government didn’t sit in silence, but they paid attention,” she said. “And they valued my father’s life. And they valued the lives of the eight other people who died.”

Rev. Pinckney’s widow, Jennifer, said she lives with the pain of that event every day, and “the anxiety’s there, the crying is still there.”

“So yes, there is a settlement,” she said. “And I don’t think about that. I think about 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.”

Eliana Pinckney said no amount of compensation can bring her father back, but the efforts and opportunities provided by the government and the family’s legal team help ensure his legacy will never go away.

“For the first time in so long as a young African American woman to see a government acknowledge the fact that racism still exists and how prevalent it is in our country and for them to actively try to combat it in every way they can, and to acknowledge the fact that gun violence is an issue, and to do everything they can to correct a mistake that happened is so important to me,” she said.

The mistake was that the shooter, Dylann Roof, never should have been able to purchase the firearm used in the massacre.

He was arrested in March of 2015 with a drug charge that should have prevented the gun store in West Columbia from approving his background check.

The background check examiner believed from the initial report that the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department made this arrest, but they reported that the Columbia Police Department would have the incident report.

On the second of three allotted days for the FBI to complete the background check, the examiner contacted the West Columbia Police Department, which referred her to the Columbia Police Department.

The background check examiner ultimately failed to obtain that prior incident report from the Columbia Police Department.

Despite this, a lower court rejected the families’ lawsuits initially as the government claimed immunity. That is until Wilkins and his team presented their case before the Fourth Circuit, and made one key argument.

“The federal examiner had to perform certain steps, did not have the discretion to elect not to do it, had to do it,” he said. “She didn’t do it. Therefore, the federal government was liable. That was our position, the Fourth Circuit adopted that position and that’s the law of the case. Had the examiner done what she was required to do, it would have revealed that the shooter was not qualified to even possess a weapon, much less buy one.”

Wilkins hopes this settlement will have implications for future illegal gun cases across the country.

“In the Fourth Circuit now and I hope throughout the United States, that the federal gun background check examiners must follow the standard procedure to prevent something like this from ever occurring again.”

Rev. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife Myra in the shooting, asks for continued prayers for the community.

“It brought a city together, it brought a community together, it brought a church together and it’s bringing a nation together. And so their death is not in vain.”

The Mother Emanuel AME church said Thursday’s settlement marks a step forward for the families of the Emanuel 9. It also calls for the closing of the “Charleston loophole,” which allowed the shooter to purchase his firearm. There are currently two background checks bills before Congress, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 and Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021. Both passed the House in March, but have not gone before the Senate.

The FBI Columbia Division released a statement that reads in part, “The FBI Columbia Field Office worked tirelessly with our state and local partners, and resources in the community to pursue justice for those victims. Today, we still share in their grief, and hope the settlements reached bring some relief to those directly affected.”

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