The day before national elections, the federal death penalty trial of Dylann Roof – for the murder of parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina – will officially begin. Although many oppose seeking capital punishment against Roof, the question has been raised: “If not in this case, then when?”
Put that way, it’s hard to disagree; many innocent victims were murdered while praying by a racist killer. It doesn’t get much worse.
But the question avoids the deeper issue: Do we need the death penalty? Forty percent of U.S. states have abolished it, and most others hardly use it. Death sentences are at a 40-year low, and even in Texas it has slowed to a crawl. The same can be said for countries around the world, where the death penalty is in steady decline.
What do these states and countries know that is eluding the fraction of U.S. jurisdictions that continue to use the death penalty? One critical insight comes from some of those most affected by murder – the victims’ loved ones. Increasingly, we are saying we do not want the death penalty. Too often we have seen family members used as emotional props on a stage where strident voices call for one more killing as if it could salve our wounds.
As a family member of a murdered loved one, and after listening to others who have endured the same pain, I see the death penalty as an impediment to healing and a cause of more grief to more families. I understand other survivors see death penalty as the only choice. We will continue to pray and talk.
As other death penalty justifications have collapsed, the death penalty’s very existence depends on some victims’ families pushing hard for death sentences and executions. The system rests on calls for harsh retribution and victim impact evidence from families at trial.
But more and more family members are tearing away at the myth of the death penalty as closure and justice for victims. Instead, it is being exposed as a cruel hoax. The death penalty is the furthest thing from swift, sure punishment. In the Roof case, a long federal trial will be followed by an equally long state trial, and if death is imposed, years and years of appeals, with potential reversals and even retrials. The likelihood of the punishment being carried out is remote, with the focus for the future almost entirely on the defendant instead of the victims.
Some family members have even forgiven the murderer in this case – not to set him free, but to free themselves of the bitterness that can come with wanting someone to die. Other family members resist being manipulated by the state, which may have a political agenda, and which seeks to avoid more complex solutions that might reduce the number of murders and help in healing.
The civil rights community is particularly challenged by the death penalty in the Roof case. For years, the death penalty has been criticized as discriminating against black defendants and serving mostly white victims. Now the tables are turned.
The problem is that the death penalty is a system, not a one-time performance. Support for the death penalty for Roof is support for a system that will be disproportionately sought and used against the poor, the mentally ill, and minorities. That system drains governments of resources that could be used to prevent crime, solve murders and help grieving families.
Not seeking the death penalty against Dylann Roof is the best answer to the question of when should it be used. Not in his case. Not in any case.
Jeremy Collins, a civil rights advocate and lawyer, serves on the national board of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.