It’s not difficult to develop a list of reasonable objections to capital punishment. We’ve never been very good at applying the ultimate penalty evenhandedly across categories of race, gender and, certainly, economic class. The fact is, if you look a certain way and if you don’t have much money, you’re considerably more likely to be executed.
Further, capital punishment as deterrence has never been a particularly convincing argument. Most murders involve combinations of passion, desperation, drugs and alcohol. It’s doubtful that many perpetrators are pulled back from the brink of violence by a moment of reflection on the fact that they reside in a state that permits capital punishment.
But here’s the strongest objection to capital punishment, the one that its supporters have the greatest challenge overcoming: As long as we practice state-sanctioned execution, the occasional killing of an innocent citizen is inevitable. It’s the price we pay for the death penalty.
Still, all of these sound arguments against capital punishment are often overwhelmed by an act of violence so monstrous that death seems like the only proper penalty. The case of Dylann Roof is a good example.
Roof’s crime is about as bad as they come. Last month a jury found him guilty of murdering nine black parishioners during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Roof pretended to join the congregants in a lesson on the parable of the sower, but when the worshipers closed their eyes for a benediction, he opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol, striking his victims at least 60 times.
Roof’s guilt was never in doubt. He confessed to the crime and to its careful planning for months before its commission. Roof is a delusional white supremacist who hoped to set off a race war by the systematic assassination of decent, innocent African Americans.
Subsequently he showed no regret. His writings, before and after his trial, are ugly expressions of vile racial hatred. In short, it takes a real effort to imagine acts of violence as despicable as Roof’s.
In fact, the New York Times reports that some who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds are having trouble with the Roof case. Rev. James Darby, a presiding elder for the A.M.E. church in Charleston, said it would be “bewildering” if Roof’s life is spared.
He added, “This could very well be the end of the death penalty in America, because if there ever was justification for killing anybody, this is the case.”
Indeed. The jury in Charleston will consider the penalty phase of Roof’s trial this week, and by the time you read this, it may have already made its decision between its only two options: life in prison without parole, or death.
Either way, Roof is going to be severely punished, whether by execution or by confinement for the next 50 or 60 years. Many of us would have a hard time deciding which is worse.
If Roof is sentenced to death, few people — including death penalty opponents like me — will shed tears; the world is a better place without people like Roof.
And, clearly, people like Roof have to be punished, as well as separated from society. But it’s a mistake to allow the appalling nature of their crimes to drive American policy on capital punishment.
Unless we’re willing to resort to the truly cruel punishments of the past — and I hope we’re not — we will always be frustrated in the effort to achieve sufficient retribution for the worst crimes.
While putting Roof to death might be satisfying, that attractive pleasure should not lead us to ignore the sound reasons for abolishing the death penalty, just all other developed Western countries have done.
In fact, with or without the death penalty, we are unlikely to ever entirely eradicate crimes as despicable as Roof’s. But we should not allow someone such as Roof to lead us to retain an ancient barbaric practice that is ineffective and easily subject to mistakes and misapplication. It gives him more power than he deserves.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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