n January 10th 2017, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist terrorist guilty of murdering nine parishioners in an historic Charleston Church, was sentenced to death. He showed no emotion as the sentence was passed. In a written manifesto and prison journal, Roof acknowledged the innocence of his victims and confessed to committing the shooting in the hope of beginning a race war. Radicalized online, he planned the attack for six months. He decided to target the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, because of its historic significance as part of civil rights history and because he felt it was unlikely he would be met with dangerous resistance. Charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, and to this day showing no remorse, many view capital punishment as the just response to Roof’s crimes. Does Roof ‘deserve’ to die for what he did? At first glance, ‘yes’ or even ‘definitely’ is to many the natural response. However, with public support to reintroduce the death penalty in the UK outweighing its resistance (YouGov polls show that 45% support it while 39% oppose it), it’s important that we reassess the idea of capital punishment to determine whether if offers any value to society.
Roof denied the human right to life of nine innocent people, and so it follows – many will reasonably argue – he should lose the right to his. An eye for an eye. He is, after all, utterly irredeemable. Found competent to stand trial, Roof wrote ‘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.’ In his manifesto he declared that he ‘would personally be content with reinstating segregation … although we would also need to put a forced sterilization program and deportation program in place at the same time.’ Roof carried eight magazines into the church which could hold thirteen rounds each. He loaded them with eleven each because he didn’t ‘want to it to like jam or anything like that’, and because eighty-eight rounds symbolises ‘Heil Hitler’ – the letter H being the eighth letter of the alphabet. Considering this unwavering devotion to the massacre, in all likelihood Roof will never be remorseful or rehabilitate – at least not to the degree where he is no longer a threat to society. While not impossible, the chances appear very low. Why then, as many have pointed out, should US taxpayer dollars sustain his life in prison until he dies of natural causes? Better that he ‘gets put to death’ because ‘why waste money to house him in prison for years?’ as one Charlestonian woman tweeted.
That said, among those directly related to the victims of the massacre and the wider Charleston community, the reaction to Roof’s death sentence has been diverse. At his hearing, five relatives of Roof’s victims spoke directly to him and forgave him, saying that they were ‘praying for his soul’. First to approach Roof was Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, died in the attack. In anguish she spoke: ‘I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you… I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’ Collier’s sister, the Rev. Sharon Risher, said ‘I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’m my mother’s child and with everything that’s happened sometimes I want him to die.’ Alana Simmons, the granddaughter of Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., who was also killed, rose to face Roof. ‘Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love,’ she said. Roof believed his actions would ignite a race war. Simmons said that she recognised that by forgiving Roof, the power he thought he had over his victim’s lives was silenced. ‘So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win’, she continued. The Rev. Anthony Thompson, who’d lost his wife, Myra Thompson, said to Roof that he and his family forgave him. Felicia Sanders, a survivor who watched her son die during the attack asked God to show mercy on Roof’s soul.
On the other hand, Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Hurd died in the attack, approved of Roof’s death penalty. ‘It’s a hard thing to know that someone is going to lose their life, but when you look at the totality of what happened, it’s hard to say that person deserves to live when nine others don’t’. Melvin’s brother, Malcolm Graham, wrote an article in The Charlotte Observer decrying those who were in favour of sparing Roof’s life, stating that: ‘Mr. Henderson, an African American civil rights attorney, believes Roof should be sentenced to life in prison, not death. I disagree … when our people are the victims – the ones innocently slaughtered – that we should seek some sort of moral high road rather than demand justice and a punishment befitting the crime.’
Millicent Brown, a significant civil rights activist in the Charleston community who, in 1963 at the age of fifteen, was one of ten students who desegregated Charleston’s public schools, criticised the forgiveness directed to Roof. ‘I think it’s disingenuous at best’, Brown said, ‘anger at this kind of mayhem is a normal and natural reaction. I am extremely resentful of what is going on in our community’. David Rivers, a Charlestonian and associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says that the community’s leadership is partly responsible for the generally peaceful reaction. At the memorial service for Emanuel AME Rev. and State Senator Clementa Pinckney, black Charleston reaffirmed their support for the love that Roof sought to destroy. AME Bishop John Bryant’s words were met with passionate applause: ‘Someone should’ve told the young man. He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place!’ Senior Religion Reporter Jack Jenkins, alumni of HarvardDivinity, said polls show that the majority of black Charlestonians oppose giving Roof the death penalty. Moreover, the new pastor of Emanuel AME has said that the denomination’s official position opposes the death penalty as a form of punishment.
‘Someone should’ve told the young man. He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place!’
I have set aside much of my word count to describe people’s responses to Roof’s sentencing because I believe that the case from reason – which I will propose – must operate in congruence with empathy if we are to talk about the death penalty in any meaningful way. Every axiom of ‘just’ or moral action is simultaneously fragmented from and interwoven with situational emotional responses. Bearing this in mind, whilst the sentencing for a crime like Dylann Roof’s must be treated with an urgent sensitivity to the victims and those directly affected, I assert that there can be no exceptions; the death penalty should be opposed absolutely. Dylann Roof should survive. Although as Brown said, outrage is a perfectly acceptable response to his crime. Certainly I could not say with any authentic degree of certainty that if those I loved were similarly murdered there would not be a part of me that longed for ultimate retribution. However, the death penalty should be opposed because it represents the consummative policy of a prison system predicated on its power to punish rather than to rehabilitate.
The case to install a prison system predicated on rehabilitation rather than punishment is clear. First, the death penalty and the idea of punishing people in prison flows from a kind of criminal essentialism – the idea that people in prison are incapable of reform – that their inherent criminality precedes any effort that they might make at change. This essentialism’s flaw is its failure to take a holistic approach to these people’s minds; it singles out their criminality and ascribes it to the totality of their mental lives. Though this analysis may seem abstract or overtly philosophical, the issues with prison systems predicated on punishment it exposes are supported by the evidence. In the US, within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners are rearrested. Within five years of release, the figure increases to 76.6%.
Though not as dire, the UK’s reoffending statistics highlight a similarly ineffective prison system: 46% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months reconviction rates increase to 60%. By comparison, the reoffending rates in Norway, Finland and Denmark, which use ‘restorative justice’ – a rehabilitatory approach to prison in which prisoners are treated more like patients, provided with education, existential purpose and greater degrees of freedom – the reoffend rates are 20%, 21% and 27% respectively. Given that another major part of the philosophy behind retributive justice is that by incarcerating prisoners it keeps the public safe from further crimes, the high reconviction rates of the US and the UK, as Guardian journalist Erwin James puts it, amount to ‘a huge investment in failure’. The system of retributive justice underpinning the death penalty is thus demonstrably ineffective from the perspective of public safety.
“when you look at the totality of what happened, it’s hard to say that person deserves to live when nine others don’t”
The other key premise of capital punishment and prison systems designed for retributive rather than restorative justice is that they deter people from committing crimes. However, there is little conclusive evidence to entirely support or negate this. As to the public’s opinion on the death penalty’s ability to deter potential murderers, polls reveal different attitudes between the US and UK. When asked ‘Do you think that executing murderers deters others from committing murder?’ 37% of US respondents answered yes while 47% answered no. In the UK, poll responses to the same question answered 45% yes and 41% no. These responses are indicative of a wider trend; support for reintroducing the death penalty in the UK has been rising steadily ever since its complete abolition in 1973. Prison scholars believe that in cases like murder, the majority of instances are situational, and when you consider that the fight against crime is in many ways the fight against poverty and social inequality too, then the effectiveness of prison as a deterrent is questionable. The only criminals conclusively shown to take the deterrent of prison into serious consideration tend to be ‘white collar criminals’, that is, individuals involved in deeply premeditated crimes like corporate fraud that view potential sentencing as part of a cost-benefit analysis.
But what of criminals like Dylann Roof or the Norwegian mass murderer Andres Breivik – those who seem beyond any possibility of rehabilitation? With the particulars of Roof’s massacre in mind, though we cannot with any absolute certainty predict future consequences, it seems highly unlikely that he will ever be remorseful. Despite this, we should not execute such criminals, but rather – if they can never be deemed safe to release – keep them incarcerated for the rest of their natural lives. This, for instance, appears to be the fate of Breivik, who faces 21 years in prison with the possibility of more extensions for as long as he is deemed a threat to society. What’s more, on a strictly economic basis, prisoners without parole in the US cost an average of $740,000, whereas cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million. Maintaining each death row prisoner costs taxpayer $90,000 more per year than prisoners in the general population.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we must recognise that by enabling capital punishment the probability that an innocent person will eventually be killed is certain. A team of legal experts and statisticians from Michigan and Pennsylvania produced a peer-reviewed estimate that 4.1% of prisoners on death row between the 1970’s and today in America have been falsely convicted. The actual exoneration rate is 1.6%, leaving a gap suggesting the innocence of over 200 prisoners who are lost to the system and, as Samuel Gross (lead author of the research) has said, ‘If you look at the numbers in our study, at how many errors are made, then you cannot believe that we haven’t executed any innocent person – that would be wishful thinking’.
The system of retributive justice underpinning the death penalty is demonstrably ineffective from the perspective of public safety
When it comes to discussing issues like capital punishment, sensitivity to the particulars on a case-by-case basis is imperative. I would advise you to read Malcolm Graham’s article which explains why, as a brother of one of the victims of Roof’s massacre, he is strongly in favour of Roof’s execution. Nevertheless, to protest against capital punishment and the system of punishment on which it is borne is not to become an apologist for murderers like Roof, but to oppose a wider and more far-reaching evil.