By JJ Seah, Contributing Writer
Dylann S. Roof has been indicted, convicted, and sentenced to death. His crimes are the murder of six women and three men on the evening of June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. Per the law of the state of South Carolina, he will face either lethal injection, or the electric chair. From the moment he murdered nine fellow Americans in cold blood, right to the instant of his verdict and sentencing, Roof has been unyielding in his unrepentance, and has shown no remorse.
The facts of the case are not up for debate. Roof admitted his own guilt, and will face justice. Rather, I will defend the concept of capital punishment as a tool of the state to punish those who would commit heinous crimes against others. Even before the trial, opinion pieces were published in the New York Times and the Washington Post arguing against the death penalty for its systemic bias towards certain racial groups and profiles. They also argued that capital punishment itself is a violation of human rights and contradictory to the freedoms and rights that Americans hold dear. Further, there are even more arguments that the death penalty costs too much to the state in terms of legal fees due to appeal and retrial costs and that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I will address these arguments later in this piece.
Before we get any further, allow me to explain my understanding of punishment. Punishment has four aims. It is a penalty for the actions of the wrongdoer who has caused harm to others by their own actions. It is a correction mechanism for wrongdoing so that, if possible, the wrongdoer become reformed and do no further harm. It is a protection for greater society, that those who would harm society are not able to do so if removed from society. And finally, it is a deterrence: a warning to all those who would seek to live beyond the law by showing that sanctions await them should they overstep the boundaries. This, in essence, is what punishment is meant to achieve.
In Roof’s case, at least three of these principles are valid. He murdered nine defenseless churchgoers in cold blood. The moment he raised a hand against his fellow man, with no reason beyond hate, his life was forfeit. Had there been police waiting for him as he stepped out of the church, he would have died in a hail of bullets, as he intended to. Is it possible that he might reform himself? Sadly, it doesn’t seem likely. Roof has been unrepentant and unwavering and wrote in his prison journal that, "I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did… I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."
Barring some miraculous conversion while imprisoned and awaiting his final hours, he will go to his grave impenitent. Will this protect society? Undoubtedly. Americans will sleep easier at night knowing that a violent murderer is safe behind bars, six feet under, or scattered to the winds. And will this serve as a deterrent? Again, yes. Roof is the first criminal who will face the death penalty for federal hate crimes. This sentences sets a precedent: a signal to all those who would seek to divide their country in hate and bigotry that such acts of brutality will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Some might argue that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent in this case, as Roof had indicated that he might want the death penalty himself. his desire to “die by police” to one of his victims. However, what’s important is the legal precedent where those who commit such acts in the future will not be able to point to his case and expect clemency.
America has a complicated relationship with the death penalty. It is true that there is a legacy of systemic racism in the way the sentence has been handed down and evidence, both historical and contemporary, of disproportionate sentencing against people of color. I deplore any biased and unjust sentencing and would be among the first to demand that if new evidence is found exonerating any accused of such crimes, they must be cleared. That is their right as citizens of a just system. That is why such sentences cannot be handed down lightly, for there must be not a shred of doubt as to the guilt of the accused. If the criminal justice system is unable to provide incontrovertible proof of guilt, then the death penalty is unwarranted and must not be granted. If it is applied anyway, then the system is unjust, and undoubtedly needs to be reformed and honed. But this is not the case for Dylann Roof. He is a murderer, and unabashedly so.
As for the cost, I am aware that in the United States it costs more to prosecute for capital punishment in trials, appeals, and retrials, rather than a defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I concede that argument. I would add that if there is reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused then they must be given every opportunity to be exonerated, and no expense must be spared to prove either guilt or innocence. Again, if there is a case for innocence, then the accused must have the right to appeals and retrials. However, I feel that in the case of Roof, and similar cases, it would be far more just to bear the costs of delivering death sentences rather than to keep him in the penitentiary.
Does the death penalty violate human rights and does it constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Not if due process is followed. According to the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, life, liberty, or property cannot be deprived without due process of the law. In this case, due process has been followed. Therefore, no rights were violated in this regard. The Supreme Court has also ruled that lethal injection (the preferred method of execution in South Carolina) is not cruel and unusual punishment. Roof is not a juvenile, and was declared fit to stand trial, thus he is ineligible for a reprieve due to mental health reasons, or reasons of age. Again, no rights have been violated. Roof is a convicted murderer who raised his weapon against the innocent. It doesn’t matter if his victims were in a church or a brothel; they were innocent. He did it of his own free will, and thus freely accepted the moral responsibilities and legal consequences that such acts would entail.
Some family members of the victims spoke at Roof’s trial, saying they had forgiven him, and would pray for him. There, then, is the human spirit, capable of forgiveness and grace despite the terrible circumstances. And there is a chance, no matter how small, that Roof might experience an awakening, and repent of his sins. But he must still pay the price for his actions, for that is justice. Lady Justice is almost always depicted blindfolded, holding aloft scales, and armed with a sword, symbolic of impartiality, balance and punishment. This triumvirate is what ensures justice for all. Remove or chain the sword, and it would only serve to render justice ineffective. Let justice be done, lest the world perish.