By James A. Kidney
Let’s talk about something more interesting than the Trump Administration. How about capital punishment and Dylan Roof?
We can all concede that Dylan Roof is a really bad guy. He admitted to killing nine people in an historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. He seems proud to assert that he murdered them for no reason other than their skin color. He killed them after sitting for over half an hour in a Bible study group with his victims at the church. A jury is considering whether to impose the death penalty on Roof.
The temptation is to say: What are we waiting for?
But there is a surprise. Survivors of at least three of the victims are providing stellar examples of Christian forgiveness. Although Roof is unrepentant, these survivors said soon after the killings, and again more recently, that they forgive him.
The federal government, which is prosecuting the case as a hate crime and civil rights violation resulting in death, is not so forgiving. It is seeking the death penalty after the same jury concluded Roof was guilty on all 33 counts against him. The guilty verdict was predictable, given that Roof admitted to the crime and seems proud of it. The jury will decide whether the federal government should kill Roof after hearing from over 30 witnesses in the death penalty phase of the trial, many of them survivors. Roof, who is defending himself, says he will not call any witnesses. He likely will try to portray himself as a savior of the white race when he gets his turn to speak. He is human waste.
Roof is only 22. He is a child of poverty common to lower class whites in the Charleston region. Press reports say he was considered a loner with few friends, but was not especially troublesome before he dropped out of school in the ninth grade. The best guess is that he killed nine African-Americans so he could “be somebody.” That the “somebody” is a racist serial killer without any remorse does not appear to bother Roof.
Of course, folks will say Roof is crazy. That is a conundrum in our justice system. A serial killer is almost by definition “crazy” or he (mostly men) would do no such thing. But, fortunately, the law provides a much less clinical and stricter definition of insanity: Did the defendant know what he did was wrong or illegal. After all, there are lots of aimless boobs out there. Most of them don’t kill.
Roof is a poster-boy for capital punishment. But doubts persist. Roof was willing to skip a trial altogether in return for a sentence of life without parole. But the prosecutors wanted the death penalty. It is not yet known how much this demand will cost the federal government. Even if it prevails, and even if Roof refuses to appeal, preferring some sort of misguided martyrdom status, it is likely that he will not be executed for years, if ever, as others appeal on his behalf.
The question of why the federal prosecutors (and, later, in a state trial, if necessary) are so anxious to put a young man to death is unanswered, except that “he deserves it.” What practical purpose is served? If there is a moral purpose, why is the government adopting the harshest among several means of exercising a moral judgment. At least some of the victims — survivors of the deceased — do not seem so blood thirsty.
Studies and experience have shown that none of the standard defenses of capital punishment have much validity.
In most cases, the cost of life-long incarceration is no greater than the cumulative cost of execution, including post-conviction legal costs.
Capital punishment has long been shown not to be a crime deterrent. There is evidence, perhaps best illustrated by Roof, that, instead, the notion of a perverted “martyrs” death at the hands of the state encourages some to proceed with murder, especially with the attendant publicity.
Retribution is another classic explanation for capital punishment. But isn’t life without parole a greater punishment? We do not cite retribution as a reason for most other criminal penalties. A robber is not usually sentenced based on “retribution.”
Only a fool would claim that execution of the killer brings “closure” to survivors of the victims. The loss is permanent. So is the pain. Although a few might find solace in a vengeful death, many others do not. Even those seeking such a penalty will find it does little to assuage their pain.
Although inapplicable to Roof, the death penalty also is faulty because it is permanent. Errors cannot be corrected once one is dead. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1971, 156 people sentenced to death have either been found innocent of the crimes with which they were charged, had the charges dismissed or were pardoned. Florida, Texas and other southern states in which a death sentence is common represent a disproportionate number of people on the list.
Racial bias also is a factor in capital punishment. Since executions resumed in 1976, 34.4 percent of those executed were black (496), but 76 percent of murder victims were white. Only 15 percent of victims in cases in which the defendant was sentenced to death were black. These statistics suggest that black murder defendants are sentenced to death mostly when they kill white people, not black people. And that black defendants killing white people are sentenced to death more regularly than white people killing anyone. So the racism goes both ways: disfavoring both black defendants and black victims (if you are in support of capital punishment).
Only 20 people were executed in all of 2016. The list from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that all of them were men. Sixteen of them were white. Two Latinos and two blacks were also executed. Eleven of the executed were over 45 years old. The oldest was 72. He had been sentenced 36 years earlier. The youngest was 33. He waited eight years after sentencing to be executed. Sixteen were executed by Texas and Georgia. The other four were two in Alabama and one each in Missouri and Florida.
The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty on the eve of the country’s 200th birthday in 1976. Since that date, 1,442 people have legally been put to death by state and federal governments. That is an average of 36 people a year. Based on 2016, current application of the death penalty is half the annual average since 1976.
Recall that statistic cited above about those whose death sentences were reversed based on new evidence? That is over 10 percent of the number who have been put to death since 1976. A 10 percent error rate would constitute malpractice against any physician.
Ten nations still provide for capital punishment. They include China, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Great company for the U.S.
Only a handful of states, nearly all of them in the South, continue to execute people with regularity. As of July 1, 2016, there were 2,905 on death row. About one quarter of those are in California, which sentences many but executes few. It is followed by Florida, Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania. Only 517 were on death row in 1968. The peak year was 2003, when 3,374 were living out death sentences while still breathing. One reason for the increase since 1968 is simply that fewer death sentences are carried out, leaving many still under sentence.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty or it has been struck down as unconstitutional. The latest court to hold the penalty unlawful was in Delaware in 2016. Four other states are living under a gubernatorial moratorium. Michigan was the first to abolish the death penalty — in 1846.
Prospects for the Supreme Court abolishing capital punishment as cruel and unusual under the Constitution were bright until Donald Trump was elected. The court is likely divided 4-4 with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a strong supporter of the death penalty. Given that Trump is likely to nominate a conservative to the Scalia vacancy who may, for several reasons, including a resistance to overturning state laws, decline to strike down capital punishment, abolition advocates must put their hope in persuading Justice Anthony Kennedy to go along with the liberal wing to strike down the penalty.
Given how many errors have been made in applying the death penalty, its racial disparities, and how increasingly rare and geographically restricted the penalty is administered, an objective case can be made for its abolition.
As for the moral case, we should look to the guidance of the forgiving survivors of the Charleston massacre. The death penalty is most commonly used in states constituting the “Bible Belt” of Christian fundamentalists. Given the fact that a number of survivors can find it in their hearts to forgive Dylan Roof, believers should consider that God has sent them here to reflect His will. But if you are not religious at all, we should still appreciate the example of mercy and hope that they provide for all of us.
Let Roof live. Don’t make the state a killer, too. Abolish capital punishment.