This was the question Melvin Graham put to reporters this week after Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for murder. In 2015, Roof was welcomed into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he opened fire and shot dead nine people.
Graham's sister, Cynthia Hurd was among them. Roof, a white supremacist, was clearly guilty and has never expressed remorse for the killings.
If there was ever a man who deserves no sympathy and to whom the word "evil" so obviously applies, it is Roof. There is no punishment befitting such an awful crime.
Still, those of us who believe in basic human rights and fundamental human dignity have to say that even these ugliest of criminals should not be killed by the state. The mandates of our Constitution, and not the Bible's "eye for an eye" provision, should dictate how we structure our criminal justice system; that's why the state curtails the liberty of people who steal rather than cutting off their hands.
It's why the state should curtail the liberty of those who kill, rather than killing them itself. The power of the state to kill as payback is simply too great to entrust to a system that is categorically imperfect, comprised as it is by fallible human beings.
For the many Americans who oppose the death penalty, cases like Roof's are among the most difficult: A mass killer driven by hate who carefully planned his actions, remorseless even more than a year after the fact and whose guilt is not in doubt.
This is not a situation where evidence is compromised or insufficient, where the defendant has serious developmental disabilities, where defense counsel was ineffective, or where an overzealous prosecutor tends to push death for black defendants in particular.
And while Roof may be mentally ill -- he refused to introduce testimony about his mental health and also refused the help of his lawyers, which are both red flags -- competency hearings were held behind closed doors, and psychiatrists at least deemed him mentally fit to stand trial. It's tough to argue that Roof should have been given leniency because of his mental health.
Instead, death penalty opponents are left with just our deep moral convictions and legal principles. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars "cruel and unusual" punishment; while the last Supreme Court ruling on this issue disagrees, it's increasingly hard to argue that execution, which involves both the killing of a human being and often significant pain and fear preceding it, is not "cruel."
Given that nearly all of our peer nations
have done away with the death penalty and that most of the nations executing people as enthusiastically as we do are oppressive autocracies -- Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Pakistan -- it's hard to argue that execution is not, in a democratic nation ostensibly committed to human rights norms, "unusual."
The arguments in favor of the death penalty are understandably passionate and emotional, especially when they come from family members of murder victims. "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," said Melvin Graham.
My deepest, most visceral reaction is identical to Graham's: Roof does not deserve to live. Were it my sister killed in that church, I might also say the state should kill him. This desire for vengeance is a thoroughly normal human impulse.
And yet, part of the purpose of our criminal justice system is to filter that retributive instinct through more detached institutions so that justice, rather than simple revenge, may be done.
We may tell ourselves otherwise, but the fact is that the death penalty is too often arbitrary, and functions as a tool of racial abuse -- men of color are much more likely to be put to death
than white men, especially if those men of color are accused of killing someone white. Roof is in many ways atypical of Americans sentenced to death. His case, for advocates of capital punishment, is as easy as they come.
Which is why death penalty opponents have to speak up, even though it feels awful and insensitive in the wake of such a sickening crime, even though it's tough -- especially when it's tough.
Dylann Roof deserves no sympathy. But no one deserves to be punished with a state-mandated murder.