The federal government announced last week that it would seek the death penalty in its case against Dylann S. Roof, the man arrested last June for killing nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church. It will be the second death penalty trial that he is facing. The state of South Carolina is also seeking the death penalty in its murder trial of Roof.
Last year in July, a federal grand jury indicted Roof, then 21, for hate crimes, weapons charges and obstructing the practice of religion. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said upon announcing the 33-count indictment: “We think that this is exactly the type of case that the federal hate crimes statutes were, in fact, conceived of to cover. Racially motivated violence such as this is the original domestic terrorism.”
It’s not among the crimes he’s charged with but terrorism it was. Roof has told investigators he was seeking to incite a race war. A website belonging to him called The Last Rhodesian showed photos of him wearing emblems of white supremacist movements. A manifesto Roof had posted on the website said the 2012 Trayvon Martin case had alerted him to the problem of black on white violence, which led him to begin researching white supremacy groups on the internet. The manifesto called for the subjection of black people to whites and the reimposition of slavery.
Citing the fact that more than two people were killed in the June 17, 2015, slayings, South Carolina prosecutor Scarlett Wilson announced in September she would seek the death penalty in Roof’s trial for murder, now scheduled to begin in January. Roof has offered to plead guilty to the murders in exchange for a life sentence without parole. He’s also offered to plead guilty to the federal charges, but his lawyers advised against his doing so until they knew whether the federal government would seek the death penalty in its case.
The pursuit of the death penalty will make both trials much more expensive. A 2014 study in Kansas found that cases without the death penalty cost an average of $740,000 while cases where the death penalty was sought cost $1.26 million. A 2010 study of federal death penalty cases found that they make the trial almost eight times as expensive as cases where the death penalty is not sought. Imprisoning Roof for life would almost certainly cost taxpayers less than the cost of executing him. In California, a death row prisoner costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year to maintain than a prisoner in the general population serving a life sentence without parole. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average time a prisoner spends on death row is 190 months, or about 16 years. Some spend far longer.
Do prosecutors seek the death penalty because they believe it acts as a deterrent? There’s little evidence that it does. A 2012 report by the National Research Council, titled “Deterrence and the Death Penalty,” stated that studies claiming that the death penalty has an effect on murder rates are fundamentally flawed and should not be used when making policy decisions. A 2009 survey by Professor Michael Radelet and attorney Traci Lacock of leading criminologists found 88 percent of them did not believe execution deters homicide. Fewer than 10 percent of the criminologists surveyed believed empirical data supports there being a deterrent effect to the death penalty.
There is probably even less deterrent value to the death penalty in terrorism cases than in criminal cases. Most terrorists are aware of the possible consequences to their acts and proceed anyway. Some terrorists want to be martyrs, and their execution can enhance their image and increase publicity and fundraising for their cause, if not in the country where their crimes are committed then abroad.
Two death penalty cases going forward for Roof seem redundant and gratuitous. While the federal case may have been filed simply to ensure Roof doesn’t escape punishment, there seems little chance of that happening. Hate crime statutes make most sense when they are applied to situations where local bias or bigotry would impede conviction of wrongdoers. When they are used simply to pile on further punishment, they can take on some of the aspects of show trials, with the longer sentences meted out appearing unjustified. Were the state and federal government not insistent on seeing Roof get death, accepting his offer to plead guilty would provide the quickest and most economical route to punishment.
After the shooting, many of those who lost family and friends in the slaughter at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church offered forgiveness to Roof. Their simple example of Christian charity stands in stark contrast to the complicated legal measures predicated on the desire for his execution. If the murders at the historic African-American church reflect the dark, underlying power of racism in our society, the legal proceedings over those murders reflect the senseless and excessive costs of our system of justice, costs that go beyond dollars and cents.
As a society, Americans seem driven by the desire to punish and punish harshly. Excessive severity is repeated at so many levels, in so many ways, throughout the system. The government’s decisions to try Roof twice on death penalty charges seems a literal example of the overkill that riddles our system and wastes both dollars and human life.