Jurors Should Say No to Executing Dylann Roof
by Laura L. Finley
It is clear that 2016 was a challenging year, as is not-so-subtly displayed by John Oliver’s “F*ck 2016” and the subsequent meme of the same name. As I reflect on the many things I would like to see improved in 2017, I am thinking about both immediate and long-term goals. One of my dreams in the long-term is an end to the death penalty in the US. In the short term, however, my hope for January is that the jury that sentences Dylann Roof chooses life over another death.
Roof was found guilty of the June 17, 2015 murder of nine African-Americans parishioners engaged in a Bible study group at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. After sitting through their prayer service, Roof gunned down Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the other members with his .45 caliber Glock pistol loaded with hollow-point bullets. His murder spree was considered a hate crime based on his frequent visits to the websites of racial hate groups and publications on his own website, where he was pictured posing with symbols of white supremacy and neo-Nazism and which featured a manifesto declaring his hatred of black people. Roof also had a list of potential targets, predominantly black churches. If he is sentenced to death, Roof would join only three others who have received federal death sentences in the past half century, and would be the only person to have been so sentenced since 2003. More recently, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received a federal death sentence for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Why do I oppose the death penalty? In general, there is a host of practical reasons, not least of which is that it is fails to deter crime, is often assigned erroneously and is fraught with bias. But in this specific case, I oppose it because it is imperative that we resist a flawed system even in cases in which it might have actually worked. That is, Roof is clearly guilty, and he is definitely not the victim of racial bias. Yet to sentence him to death serves to continue the practice of state killing, and does so in a way that not only fails to correct the racial injustices inherent in US capital punishment but to instead intensify them.
Many people oppose the death penalty because they are concerned about executing someone who was wrongly convicted. Obviously, proving someone’s guilt should be an absolute. This, however, is more of a tinkering argument — if we just make some adjustments to how death sentences are imposed, the argument goes, then we would get it right and therefore it would be an acceptable punishment. I am tired of our tinkering with the machinery and missing the road on which it operates. To me, it is precisely this kind of slam-dunk case that tests our collective will, that taps into our moral fiber, and that begs us to do the right thing. And that, I believe, is not to let the state kill another person to demonstrate that hatred or murder are wrong. Whether one believes that a higher power should make that decision or not is irrelevant to the fact that the state should not be given this license for vengeance.
Some have argued that executing Roof would be the just response, given that so many black offenders who kill white people received death sentences. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 297 black defendants were executed for killing a white victim while just 31 white murderers who were executed claimed black victims. Although not stated in so many words, the argument seems to be that executing Roof would be some kind of corrective for the historical and current racial injustice in capital punishment. That notion is not only wrong, but in contrast to the wishes of the majority of black Americans in the state of South Carolina.
The reality is that people like Roof, who bear deep hatred for other races, are not likely to be changed because he was executed. Nor would his execution in any way address the racial disparities that lead to the biased system of capital punishment, as they begin with which behaviors we choose to criminalize, escalate in the ways that we police, and increase throughout our court systems. Killing Roof merely continues the death penalty, and therefore inevitably results in the execution of more black individuals.
Additionally, a recent poll found 65 percent of African-Americans in South Carolina oppose the death penalty for Roof, as do several of the family members of people he murdered. The will of the people should not be ignored, but it has been so far. It is my hope that in 2017, Dylann Roof’s jury rejects vengeance and spares his life, as a step in the direction toward eliminating the death penalty for good.
Laura L. Finley, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Barry University, a syndicated columnist, and an active member of many social justice and human rights organizations.