Issac Bailey: Seeking death penalty against suspect in Charleston church killings is wrong
Prolonging the use of the inequitable death penalty will cause great harm, Bailey says
Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
The death penalty is wrong. Using it to punish Dylann Roof may make some of us feel good in the short term but will only make it harder to uproot a system that’s more likely to harm people who look more like Roof’s victims than Roof himself.
That’s why I can’t get onboard with or cheer on the Justice Department’s decision to seek to kill Roof for allegedly having killed nine people last summer in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I don’t say that lightly. I know well the emotional resonance that comes with that dastardly deed. I attended a service at Emanuel with my then-future wife eight years before we were married, a full quarter of a century before Roof’s name became infamous.
I’ve felt the fear that comes with hate-fueled white violence against black bodies, having watched Ku Klux Klan rallies and wondered if that uniquely American terror group would one day turn its attention to the people I loved, the way Roof did to those unsuspecting families.
I graduated from a high school that didn’t integrate until four decades after Brown v. Board of Education, know firsthand how my parents and aunts and uncles had to endure threats veiled – and not-so-veiled – from white men ready to harm them, physically, financially, socially, for stepping out of line during a period those men were unlikely ever to face real justice if they made good on those promises.
No one has to remind me about the dark power of Roof’s actions.
A few months ago, I sat in the home of Marjorie McIver listening as she described the difficulty of getting out of the bed each morning because she couldn’t get the image of Myra Thompson’s bullet-riddled body out of her mind. Thompson was one of the nine people killed during that Emanuel Bible study. McIver is her sister.
Still, when I last spoke with McIver, she wasn’t in favor of the death penalty and instead was trying to grapple with the reality of the ugliness that had befallen her family, looking for ways to do what her faith had long taught her, find light in even the darkest places.
That’s why she forgave Roof when many others – including other family members – couldn’t yet do the same. She did that knowing that the killings with which he was charged represent an unwanted reminder of our country’s painful, conflicted past. Among those bitter memories, McIver recalled when she and her siblings had to adhere to curfews and avoid playing outside not to run afoul of the Klan and all the times when she got arrested as a teenager and young adult protesting Jim Crow.
Her faith helped guide her through, allowing her to embrace forgiveness when bitterness seemed like the logical option.
My experience has led me to the same place. I’m the brother of a black man who killed a white man. I know what it feels like to be on the other side of awful headlines.
My oldest brother initially faced the death penalty for his 1982 crime until a plea agreement sent him to prison for 32 years.
That’s why I know that a life sentence is not a slap on the wrist, not for the person behind those bars, not for the people who love him despite his dark deeds.
That’s why I know that for all the evil conjured up when someone takes a life, for whatever reason, the only way back to the center is love.
Killing Roof is a strike against love, the kind that McIver and her family put on display when they publicly forgave the man who is facing trial on the charge that he violently ended the lives of those they held dear.
Killing Roof – for no good reason – might satisfy our bloodlust for a few days. But we won’t be killing him because he’s a threat to society, because he no longer is. We won’t be killing him because we have to, only because we want to.
We feel comfortable killing someone who has killed in a way that we’d never apply to other crimes. No one would be OK with raping someone who raped because we know that to do so would be to dehumanize us more than the person we are punishing.
We can’t use a system known for its seemingly intractable racial and socioeconomic disparities to kill Roof today, then argue tomorrow that it must be dismantled for the good of humanity. We know the system isn’t perfect, that hundreds have been freed after false convictions, that the race of the defendant and victim are often deciding factors in who faces this ultimate “justice.”
And yet some of us will cheer Roof’s potential demise, or are so disgusted with his continued presence on Earth we won’t dare declare what we already know, that killing Roof for having killed corrupts the pursuit of real justice like nothing else can.
Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.