The wheels of justice grind slowly, and the case of mass murderer Dylann Roof is no exception. (I’ve given up on bothering to say “alleged” in reference to Roof so feel free to cast stones at me over that if you wish. He did it.) It’s still a couple of months before jury selection begins in the case, but when it does, a group of Roof’s peers from the community will not only decide on his guilt, but whether or not he will be put to death for his crimes. The death penalty will remain a bone of contention in our society for as long as it exists, but there’s a new twist on the argument against it this week from Wade Henderson, the longtime president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Rather than arguing that Roof deserves compassion or that all life is precious, one of several complaints coming from Mr. Henderson seems to be that putting a white murderer to death would obscure the debate over how many black convicts face the same fate. (Washington Post)
At first glance, the notion of a white man facing the death penalty for murdering black people in the South — in a killing inspired by the murderer’s racist views — may seem like a marker of racial progress.
It isn’t — and those who champion civil rights should not celebrate this moment. Roof’s crime was surely heinous, and his racism was repugnant. But supporters of racial equality and equal treatment under the law should support Roof’s offer to plead guilty and serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
How can it be that a lifelong civil rights lawyer such as myself would take this position? Because the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of racial discrimination, especially in the South.
Henderson is tackling a thorny subject, and in rebutting him I immediately run into a similar set of conundra. (Yes, I know… but I just like conundra.) Attempting to separate race from the question of Roof’s guilt is particularly difficult from either side of the equation given the nature of his horrific crimes. And for the record, Henderson is arguing against a capital offense case on more grounds than simply racial inequity. It may surprise the reader to learn that I agree with virtually each and every one of the author’s complaints, but we still arrive at a different conclusion.
His first argument is that the death penalty is applied with greater proportional frequency to black men (almost exclusively males, anyway) convicted of killing white victims than to white murderers. This is true and criminal justice records support that fact. It’s similar to how crack users (more frequently black suspects) receive longer sentences than snorters of powdered cocaine (more typically whites). Neither of these situations represents equal application of justice and Henderson has a valid complaint on that score.
He goes on to point out something which is hardly unique to race related murders such as the ones Roof committed. It will tear the community apart. Friends and family members of the deceased will be forced to relive something horrible beyond the imaginations of those of us fortunate enough not to live through such a monstrous event. The defense will spin tales and perhaps even seek to shift blame to make Roof look less despicable than he is. This, as Henderson correctly notes, is the way our criminal justice system is designed. The defense will do what they must to offer the most robust defense of their client possible, no matter how painful it is to the community.
So with Wade Henderson and I agreeing on so much, how is it that we arrive at such different conclusions? Because the reality of the world is sometimes much harsher than the more gentle souls among us would wish to admit. In real life, just as in sword and sorcery films, you occasionally come across monster and those monsters need to be slain. Not all murder cases merit the death penalty, of course. There are sudden, horrible crimes of passion which take place. Sometimes a non-violent criminal with no intention of killing gets caught up in a high tension moment of conflict and takes a life. While exceedingly rare and often falsely claimed by other defendants, some individuals are so badly mentally impaired that they honestly can’t grasp the consequences of their actions. Other examples abound and many cases which result in a killing don’t automatically demand an eye for an eye from civilized society. Intent and circumstances need to be taken into account.
None of these scenarios apply to Dylann Roof. He is no crazier than any other individual who would willingly murder another and he concocted a plan, equipped himself to the task and set out to complete it with more than adequate time to reflect on his choice and turn back. Dylann Roof isn’t the boy next door caught up in unfortunate events. He’s a beast, and sometimes society has to be ready to just put the beast down and be done with it. As I’ve written here before, I understand that many will argue that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent. My response is that this is a question which can never be definitively answered. We’ll never know how many people may have considered murder but turned back for fear of the specter of their own mortality if they were to be caught and sent to the gallows. So is the death penalty a deterrent? Perhaps in many cases it’s not, but there is one thing I know for a certainty. If the defendant in this case receives that sentence and it’s carried out it will most assuredly be a 100% effective deterrent for Dylann Roof.
We don’t need to turn this into an argument over racial inequity in the justice system. There is needed work to be done in determining if and when black defendants are sentenced to death when a white man in the same circumstances would not be and everyone should support ending that pattern. But today we’re talking about Dylann Roof. There is no room for him in civil society and dragging this argument off into the weeds of social justice debates does no service to his victims and their families, nor does it protect the rest of society from him should he ever escape from jail in the future.
I take no joy in this, but it’s time to put the beast down and be done with it.