It took the jury just three hours of deliberation before reaching the decision to execute Dylann Roof. But did they make the right call?
Several weeks after a multiracial jury found Dylann Roof — the self-identified white supremacist who brandished a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun and murdered nine black parishioners during a Bible study session at Emanuel A.M.E. Episcopal Church — guilty on 33 counts, the jury returned to court to pass sentence: death. Mr. Roof is the first person to face execution following conviction for a federal hate crime.
According to a New York Times report, Mr. Roof, 22, insisted on legally representing himself, denied being influenced by a psychological impairment, furnished no evidence that would aid his defense and remained unrepentant to the end.
It took the jury just three hours of deliberation before a reaching a decision. In a statement to the press, Mr. Roof’s family expressed their shock and disappointment by his actions and admitted that they would “struggle as long as we live to understand why he committed this horrible attack, which caused so much pain to so many good people,” reports The New York Times.
Although Mr. Roof hails from a genealogical line of Confederate soldiers and slaveholders, he vehemently maintains that he was not raised in a racist household. Still, some white-power comrades with whom he ideologically aligns — but who he never met or interacted with — do wonder if the results of his trial will benefit white nationalists groups, and if he could possibly become the first in a new wave of martyrs for white supremacy.
Speaking with WBUR 90.9, Robert Futrell, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had this to say about Mr. Roof’s ties to the white power movement:
“Some people talk about him as sacrificing himself for the white race, as a fed-up white man who knows the truth about racialism, some think he’s pushed them closer to what they call the ‘fate that lies ahead,’ which they imagine is a race war, and they talk about white genocide, and they also talk about exterminating those who would promulgate white genocide, which means blacks, Jews, that sort of thing.”
However, his relationship to white power organizations remains a “complicated” one, a point Professor Futrell also highlights:
“On the other hand, some feel that Dylann Roof brought unwanted attention, that it’s a bad tactic to engage in the violence right now, or when he did, that it brings the kind of spotlight that many of those who call themselves ‘white nationalists,’ or the ‘alt-right,’ don’t want, because they’re seeking more legitimate forms of power.”
Long before the verdict was announced, the families of the victims of the Emanuel tragedy had forgiven Mr. Roof, declared their sentiments publicly and expressed no interest in considering the death penalty in his case. Notable journalists like Ta-nehisi Coates and Shaun King discussed their disagreement with executing Mr. Roof.
Reacting in a Facebook post, King wrote “I am also against the death penalty. I would have rather seen him live the rest of his life in the South Carolina prison system,” before lamenting about the “painful and ugly world” we live in.
In a piece for The Atlantic under the blunt headline “Killing Dylann Roof,” Coates proposes that sparing Roof’s life would be an opportunity to meet the ideal of nonviolence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied and gave his life on behalf of. But he also proffers a more practical perspective on the insufficiency of rendering such a verdict:
“Killing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place. The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing. Leave aside actual substantive policy. In a country where unapologetic slaveholders and regressive white supremacists still, at this late date, adorn our state capitals and our highest institutions of learning, it is bizarre to kill a man who acted in their spirit. And killing Roof, like the business of the capital punishment itself, ensures that innocent people will be executed. The need to extract vengeance cannot always be exact. It is all but certain that a disproportionate number of those who pay for this lack of precision will not look like Dylann Roof.”
That Dylann Roof and the sick ideology he stood for will continue to win even with his death, that the execution of this deranged white supremacist will leave black populations more vulnerable to the death penalty, is inarguably a powerful contention to keep in mind in the months leading up to the final hours of Mr. Roof.