CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A friend of the white man accused of killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study at a Charleston church last year pleaded guilty Friday to lying to federal authorities. He also revealed the suspect told him he had intended to kill himself after the slayings, which he had planned for months.
The plea by Joey Meek, 21, marked the first conviction in a mass killing that stunned the nation, reignited discussions about race relations and led to the removal of a Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. Dylann Roof, who is charged with the slayings, had previously posed for photos with a rebel flag.
Authorities have said Meek failed to tell investigators all he knew about Roof's plans to shoot the parishioners at Emanuel AME Church last June 17. Roof, 22, is charged with nine counts of murder in state court and with hate crimes and other charges in federal court.
Meek signed a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to lying to authorities and failure to report a crime. He could face up to eight years in prison when he's sentenced later, although prosecutors say they will argue he deserves less time if he's cooperative.
Meek, clad in a dark suit, sat silently looking ahead as more than a dozen relatives of the shooting victims were ushered to seats reserved on one side of the courtroom. He spoke softly, often simply replying "Yes, your honor," to routine questions from U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson noted that Meek not only knew about Roof's plans for the shootings but didn't tell law enforcement and told others not to tell as well.
"Roof told Joey Meek that he was going to shoot people at an AME church in Charleston," Richardson said, adding Roof had even said he would do so during a Wednesday night Bible study.
Richardson also said Meek knew Roof had planned the attack for six months, had a gun and would carry extra ammunition in an attempt to start a race war. He also said Roof told him he had planned to kill himself after the shootings.
The prosecutor said the morning after the June 17 shootings, Meek told a friend who had seen news reports not to call authorities. The friend called the FBI anyway and only then did Meek call.
In an initial interview with the FBI, Meek denied knowing anything about the shootings beforehand but, during a second interview, changed his story and said he knew of Roof's plans, the prosecutor said.
When the judge asked if he thought Roof was the gunman when he heard the news the night of the shootings, Meek replied "since he had told me a week before, I had an idea it was him."
Meek said he had only finished the 10th grade, is currently taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sees a psychiatrist. His attorney, Debbie Barbier, declined to comment about the treatment after the hearing.
She told reporters that Meek feels remorse and hopes relatives of those slain will forgive him but understands they likely won't.
One of those relatives, 54-year-old Gary Washington, the son of Ethel Lance who was killed at the church, appeared before the judge who asked if any family members wanted to speak.
Washington, who is deaf, spoke through a sign language interpreter, telling Gergel that the day of the shootings he hugged his mother at the church, told her to be careful and then went to work. He said he didn't find out she had been killed until later when all the victims' families were gathered at a nearby hotel.
"I don't understand why he did what he did," he said of the gunman.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in Roof's state murder trial set for next January. Federal prosecutors haven't said if they too will seek the death penalty. No date for that trial has been set.
A day after the shootings Meek, who had hung out with Roof off and on in the previous weeks, told The Associated Press that Roof had drunkenly complained to him that "blacks were taking over the world" and "someone needed to do something about it for the white race."
Meek also told the AP he called the FBI after recognizing Roof in surveillance footage from the church, down to the stained sweat shirt he had worn while playing videogames in Meek's home the morning of the attack. He said Roof told him he used birthday money from his parents to buy a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun.
Roof's federal defense team had no comment on Meek's guilty plea. The Associated Press left messages with his attorneys in the state case seeking comment.
Debra Gammons, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Charleston School of Law, says Meek's cooperation will be important to both state and federal prosecutors. To prove murder in South Carolina, one must show premeditation.
"As far as the prosecution goes you now have this other person saying this is what the plan was," she said, calling it good evidence for state and federal prosecutors.
Under the plea agreement, Meek must testify truthfully and also provide "any books, papers or documents of evidentiary value to the investigation."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/