Jill Filipovic: Dylann Roof, sentenced to death, neither wants nor deserves mercy. But he should not be put to death
She says: State-sanctioned killing is the province of authoritarian states. The US must not be in business of killing for revenge
“How do you justify saving one life when you took nine, and in such a brutal fashion?”
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.”