Dylann Roof Death Sentence Sparks Debate about Capital Punishment

Death PenaltyEarlier this year, Dylann Roof was sentenced to death by a federal jury in South Carolina for murdering nine black church parishioners in a racially motivated attack. During Roof’s trial and sentencing phase he consistently rejected advice and assistance from counsel, leaving his sentence little surprise.

The case has proven challenging for opponents of the death penalty who have struggled to argue that someone who committed such atrocious acts deserved a lighter sentence. However, the lengthy appeals process for death penalty cases and questions surrounding the use of common lethal injections drugs could eventually sway legal and public opinion towards a life sentence.

Dylann Roof Sentenced to Death for South Carolina Slayings

The same jury of nine white and three black members who found Roof guilty of 33 federal counts for his attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church took only three hours of deliberations before delivering a unanimous sentence of death. The sentence came as little surprise given the evidence against Roof and his unwillingness to mount a meaningful effort during the penalty phase. Roof denied assistance of legal counsel and refused to present psychology expert witnesses who might have offered insight into his mental state that could have provided the jury with mitigating factors. 

Roof’s closing remarks reinforced his unapologetic attitude when he said, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it,” before concluding, “I have a right to ask you to give me a life sentence but I'm not sure what good that would do.”

Without any evidence of mitigating factors presented by Roof, the prosecution recounted the heinousness of the defendant’s shooting spree which took place after a Bible study that he had attended. Given the defendant’s unrepentant attitude and racial motivations, federal prosecutors pursued the death penalty with vigor, with assistant US attorney Julius N. Richardson requesting that jurors “hold this defendant fully accountable for his crimes.” 

The sentencing phase was punctuated by emotional testimony from family members of the victims who expressed their sadness and sense of loss, but also made a point to tell the defendant that his efforts at igniting a race war had failed.

The verdict will no doubt come as relief to the Justice Department which has taken some criticism by death penalty opponents who point out that some members of the victims’ families have not supported the decision to seek capital punishment.

Victims’ Families Take High Road after Death Sentence

As has been the case throughout Roof’s trial, family members of his nine victims took the high road when questioned about their reaction to his sentence by maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of emotionally draining circumstances. In some cases, victim relatives approved of the sentence, with Melvin Graham, who lost his sister Cynthia Hurd during the attack, saying, “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 … How do you justify saving one life when you took nine, and in such a brutal fashion?”

Others were more conflicted, and found that their personal feelings on the death penalty were challenged by Roof’s case. Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of victim Ethel Lee Lance, told the media, ““I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’m my mother’s child and with everything that’s happened sometimes I want him to die … I’m just glad that they didn’t leave that decision to me. I just reconciled myself that whatever they decided he will never see the light of day again.” The sentence was confirmed by Judge Richard M. Gergel, setting off debate about whether or not it is ever okay to legally execute convicted defendants.

Dylann Roof Case a Challenge in Death Penalty Debate

Parties on opposite sides of the death penalty debate have pointed to the case of Dylann Roof as an important case study in why a government should, or should not, have the right to execute capital punishment for serious crimes.

Opposition pieces written by lawyers and policy makers have argued that even when faced with heinous criminals, executing someone constitutes cruel and unusual punishment which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. Arguments against the death penalty have picked up steam in recent years as experts have raised serious questions about the suffering and pain caused by lethal injection drugs.

Supporters of the death penalty have responded that cases like Roof’s are the exact reason to have the death penalty because society cannot stand for unrepentant and racially charged attacks that lead to multiple deaths. Roof has not expressed remorse, which is a fact death penalty supporters have argued justifies his execution in this case.

As with all capital sentences, Roof’s will go through several rounds of appeal which may bring to light psychological evidence of his mental state. Regardless of whether or not Roof’s sentence is carried out or commuted, the tragedy he inflicted will be remembered for many reasons, one of them being his sentence is a challenging case study in the death penalty argument.

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