Dylann Roof sentenced to death, despite one victim's family members opposing sentence
They're not the first to tell CNN they oppose capital punishment for loved one's killer
Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from a CNN article published in 2011.
Nine people slain. In a black church. By an avowed white supremacist. Who wanted to start a race war.
Yet there are at least two family members who don’t want to see Dylann Roof die by lethal injection for perpetrating the 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Esther Lance conceded she was “angry” and at first said she wanted him to die for killing her mother Ethel. Then reconsidered, saying, “My mom wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Esther’s sister, Sharon Risher, too, was conflicted. In an essay she wrote during the summer, she said she had not forgiven Roof and she would not protest if he was sentenced to death. But whatever Roof’s sentence, she stands opposed to capital punishment, she wrote.
“Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother’s death, I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her. That’s my conviction because of my faith,” she said. “I’ve said the same thing all along – I don’t believe as human beings that we should take away someone’s life just because we have the power to do so. God is the only person, the only being who decides our fate.”
Though support for the death penalty has dropped from 80% to 60% over the last two decades, this sort of magnanimity, especially from those so closely touched by violence, may seem strange, but it’s not unheard of.
And the reasons families give for not wanting their loved ones’ killers to die themselves aren’t always steeped in politics or religion, as you might expect.
‘We shouldn’t be deciding’
Charisse Coleman has no real compassion for the man who walked into the Thrifty Liquor Store in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1995 and put three bullets in her brother, Russell.
But she doesn’t want Bobby Lee Hampton – one of more than seven dozen killers on Louisiana’s death row – executed, either.
“My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with Bobby Lee Hampton,” Coleman told CNN in 2011. “He’s a bad dude. He’s never going to be a good dude. If I got a call that said Bobby Lee Hampton dropped dead in his cell last night, I don’t think it would create a ripple in my pond.”
She added, though, “I will be goddamned if I will let Bobby Lee Hampton make me a victim, too, by taking me down that road of bitterness and revenge.”
She may not love the man who gunned down her brother. But she doesn’t want payback, either, even though she’ll always miss her artistic, dimple-cheeked sibling and his taste for puns, storytelling and Frank Zappa.
Coleman said she worries that in many capital punishment cases, factors like the race of the victim or the defendant’s ability to afford experienced attorneys may influence the outcome. She also feels that executing people to show that killing is wrong is more retribution than punishment.
Most of all, she doesn’t like the fact there’s room for error, as evidenced by the scores of death row exonerations handed down since 1973.
“The criminal justice system is created by and conducted by humans,” she said. “As long as we’re capable of making mistakes, we shouldn’t be deciding who lives and dies.”
‘If you practice, you become adept’
Andre Smith, 60, of Raleigh, North Carolina, had been offering spiritual advice to prisoners at Nash Correctional Institution for about five years when his faith was tested. As part of the Buddhism-based Liberation Prison Project, he taught inmates anger management and meditation skills.
In teaching inmates, he leaned on his own experiences and presented them alongside the virtues of Jesus, Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi.
“I don’t think I would be able to forgive … the guy who killed my son if not for my practicing these principles and working with these guys in prison,” he said.
According to Smith and authorities, Wallace Bass was spending his 24th birthday at the West Side Stories nightclub in Raleigh, where Smith’s son, Daniel, was a regular on the dance floor. After a petty argument over a spilled beer, Bass followed Daniel Smith into the bathroom and stabbed him several times.
Smith never hated Bass. He actually told reporters at the time he had compassion for his son’s killer, who faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Forgiveness, he said, was a product of years of exercising compassion, just as a violent assault can come only after years of practicing anger, the Buddhist said.
“If you practice, you become adept,” Smith said.
‘I don’t want … to let retribution be the rule’
John Starbuck decided he didn’t believe in the death penalty during a political science research project at age 15, but the issue wasn’t real to him at the time.
His stance became more visceral when Lester King, the man he called dad and who spent much of his life in law enforcement, had a heart attack in 1982 after being jumped by thugs in Oakland, California, and again when Starbuck’s stepdaughter, Meleia Willis-Starbuck, 19, was fatally shot in Berkeley, California, in 2005.
Raised in a Unitarian church, Starbuck said he was not swayed by calls, some from family members, to execute the people who killed his loved ones.
“‘If you honor your daughter, if you honor your grandfather, you’ll want the people who did this to them to die,’” he recalls people telling him, even though no one ultimately faced capital punishment for the deaths. “I’m just confident in my love for them and my love for humanity, that I don’t want this to be part of our society, to let retribution be the rule.”
Starbuck was allowed to voice his opinion to the California court during the 2008 trial for his stepdaughter’s killer, Christopher Hollis, who was her friend. He doesn’t believe Hollis, who fired blindly into a crowd in an apparent attempt to break up a fight, meant to kill her, he said.
Though the death penalty wasn’t a consideration, Starbuck didn’t want Hollis’ life to effectively be destroyed by a lengthy prison sentence. He wrote the Alameda County Superior Court judge presiding over the case and asked him to show mercy.
“If Chris is, in fact, the sort of man that Meleia would count as a friend, I imagine that he suffers each and every day from her loss. He is not only in physical prison, but he is sentenced to the gravest cage of broken possibilities and personal responsibility,” Starbuck wrote.
‘Maybe because I think it’s barbaric’
Jan Brown of Houston said she can’t pinpoint why she loathes the death penalty, but she always has, even when her 9-year-old daughter’s killer was executed.
A Southern Baptist until 1984, Brown said capital punishment is tantamount to “legalized murder.” She said she doesn’t know when she developed her disdain. The first time she considered it may have been when she told a prosecutor she didn’t want James Earhart to die, she said.
“Maybe I’m just selfish,” she said. “Maybe he’d tell me what her last words were. Maybe he’d tell me why she had to die. Maybe because I think it’s barbaric. Maybe if one of my children ended up in the same situation, I wouldn’t want them to die.”
Brown said the entire process leading up to Earhart’s lethal injection was more about the perpetrator than the victim. Brown herself was a suspect until police found Kandy Janell Kirtland’s deteriorating body, her hands bound, in a rubbish pile in Bryan, Texas.
Brown said she was further devastated when protesters staged a vigil at Earhart’s 1999 execution – not for the innocent girl who never got to see fifth grade, but for her killer.
Brown said she went through 12 years of hell because a prosecutor seemed to care more about Texas’ reputation for being tough on crime than about helping Kandy’s family heal.
‘It doesn’t go away’
Gus Lamm said he felt the same way when his wife, Victoria Zessin, was taken at age 28. He and his daughter unsuccessfully sued the parole board – and in the process alienated themselves from Zessin’s family – to make sure the state knew they felt capital punishment was repugnant.
Zessin was pregnant with their second child at the time, and she wanted to visit her pal, Janet Mesner, a caretaker at a Quaker meetinghouse in Lincoln, Nebraska, before the baby arrived.
Randy Reeves, Mesner’s adopted cousin, had been drinking since morning when he assaulted Mesner on the night of March 29, 1980. Zessin overheard the commotion and ran to her friend’s rescue, only to have Reeves’ knife pierce her liver.
Zessin died immediately, Mesner on the way to the hospital.
Lamm, 61, who describes himself as “atheist at best,” said the death penalty is “horrific, and it does nothing to attend to us as human beings.” He scoffs at the notion that killing a killer provides closure and noted that a reporter was asking about his wife’s death more than three decades later.
“It doesn’t go away,” he said.
He and his daughter, Audrey, who was 2 and asleep upstairs in the meetinghouse when her mother was murdered, tried to convey that to the Nebraska Parole Board in 1999 but were told they could not testify. They sued, and a judge ruled against them.
Lamm’s opposition to the death penalty is pragmatic – he doesn’t trust the government to spend his tax dollars, so why should he trust it to decide whether to execute a criminal or grant clemency? Like Jan Brown, he felt his family’s healing didn’t matter in the state’s quest to put Reeves to death.
“If this was a war zone, I’d be collateral damage,” he said.
CNN’s Nick Valencia contributed to this report.