If ever there were a strong candidate for the death penalty, it would seem to be Dylann Roof. On June 17, 2015, he committed an unspeakably heinous crime: the cold-blooded killing of nine peaceful worshippers — including the senior pastor and state senator, Clementa Pinckney — in an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He did it to further an agenda of white supremacy.
On December 15, 2016, he was found guilty of 33 federal crimes, including first-degree murder, hate crime, and obstruction of the exercise of religion. Of these 33 crimes, 18 carry the federal death penalty. On January 10, 2017, after just three hours of deliberation, the jury voted to send Roof to death row.
But even if you support capital punishment for serious felony offenses generally, at least 3 compelling arguments can be made that an exception should be made in this case — that Roof should have received a life term.
1. Don’t give Dylan Roof what he wants.
The first argument is that he appears to have wanted to transform his boring life into one of significance as a martyr, and a sentence of death only rewards his self-absorbed, toxic agenda.
This was not a person with a bright future. The child of a broken home, he attended no fewer than seven schools before dropping out to play video games, take drugs and get drunk. He had worked as a landscaper, but was unemployed at the time of the shooting and had no known romantic involvements and few friendships.
Better to deprive him of further sensational attention by ensuring years of miserable boredom than to award him with martyrdom in the form of criminal-justice-assisted suicide. The death penalty in this case thus fails to serve the interests of pure justice. If we’re interested in punishing the offender to serve retributive goals, it makes little sense to give him what he wants.
2. In general, don’t offer martyrdom as a reward for mass murder.
The second argument against the death sentence in this case is that it may encourage other depressed people with suicidal inclinations to follow Roof’s example. The death sentence thus serves as a counter-deterrent to terrorism and hate crime, at least for some people. In a time of growing alienation among young people, Roof’s sentence could motivate more than a handful of others to engage in similar acts of violent extremism.
3. Don’t create a dangerous precedent.
The third argument against capital punishment for Roof is that the jurors in Roof’s case may not have felt comfortable returning to their communities with the impression that they had been lenient to a mass murderer. Thus, in this case, the death sentence may elevate a popular sanction over a principled one.
Voting for the death sentence may even have offered some of the jurors a sense that they were virtuous for having shown opposition to racial supremacy. It is not obvious that ordinary citizens should be put in such positions.
Because this is such a widely publicized case, this decision could result in over-use of the death penalty or other distortions of justice in subsequent cases. In other capital cases, jurors might even be less inclined to convict culpable offenders, knowing that they will feel pressure to give the death sentence at the sentencing stage.
A solution would be to leave sentencing to judicial discretion, but that is not the world in which jurors in federal, and many state, courts live.
How do we respond to the most serious crimes?
There are other good reasons not to execute Dylan Roof — reasons that apply to all capital cases: it violates the norms of a just society; it gives the state more authority over life-and-death matters than it should have; it fails to deter; and it brutalizes everyone, sending the signal that it is acceptable to kill people in conditions other than self-defense.
As a practical matter, the jury’s voting for the death penalty rather than a life sentence in the Roof case does not mean the inevitable execution of Dylann Roof. The jury’s vote is only a recommendation, not a binding commitment for execution by a certain date. The last federal execution was in 2003; today 63 federal inmates are on death row. It is entirely possible that none of the 63 will be executed.
This doesn’t invalidate the arguments listed above. A degree of martyrdom is achieved by the death sentence, whether carried out or not. Better simply not to opt for the death penalty in the first place in such cases.
Cases like Dylann Roof’s frustrate our ability to find a just resolution. Nothing the criminal justice system can do to Roof is proportionate to the harm he imposed on his victims, their families, and the community at large. No sanction can bring back the victims or fully compensate the survivors for their losses.
The death penalty may make us feel good in the short term, allowing us to believe that it was the best that could be done, but this may be an illusion. It may be that the best we can do is grieve and try to move on, as we try to do when natural disasters and other tragedies strike.