big questions

Sentencing Dylann Roof

It’s about time we had a talk about the death penalty in the United States (again). If you don’t want to read more about this topic, I don’t blame you. I don’t really want to think about it either. But once I read the headline and read the article, I had a few thoughts run through my head, and this post will be one where I try to work through them.

Feel free to skip this one if you’d like. But it’s here if/when you decide to come back.

Charleston church shooter and despicable human being Dylann Roof was sentenced to death recently in the courtroom in South Carolina. He was convicted and sentenced for killing nine black parishioners inside a historically black church, because he felt a race war was going to – even should – happen. In a journal entry from his prison cell in 2015, he wrote:

“I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

This person is a heinous human being. At only 20 years old he walked into a peaceful church, prayed with a group of welcoming people, and in response he pulled a gun and murdered them. According to the above report, he even walked into the courtroom to provide his own defense, wearing hand-drawn racist symbols on his shoes like a racist and self-righteous asshole. It was a unanimous decision from all 12 jurors: the ultimate punishment we have in US society. He is set to be killed by the state, don’t know when, by likely either lethal injection (if those drugs can be obtained), or electrocution, or possibly even firing squad. I couldn’t confirm a method, and frankly I don’t really want to.

Not my image, it belongs to ABC News. All rights are theirs.

I’m not surprised such a verdict was coming. It seemed almost inevitable (especially given the idea that he was defending himself in court, which any judge or counsel anywhere would probably say, and I quote, “that’s really fucking dumb”) that he would be punished severely, and the death penalty being on the table as an option meant he was at least flirting with the idea. And as heinous as his crimes were, it’s easy to come to the conclusion – and without moral judgment from others – that he should be killed as a consequence.

That’s where I struggle with this whole situation. Justice is a tricky thing — who can say with 100% certainty that this or that is the “right” course of carrying out such a sentence? Or that such a sentence is a just one? I used to think that a death sentence could be justified, and part of me still does in the most extreme of circumstances – I was relieved when Timothy McVeigh was killed after his arrest and sentencing for the bombing in Oklahoma City, for example – but since then I’ve struggled with such a concept.

See, the more I think about it, the more I think about the other people around and affected by such a sentence. It’s not just McVeigh being punished, not even just his victims, not even just the families of their victims, but the correctional officers that have to help in killing a person. I don’t care how heinous the crime, I can’t imagine the feeling that comes with killing another human being in the name of “justice”, no matter the method.

Consider the impact of someone helping prep the room for carrying out that sentence, let’s say by lethal injection: there are multiple people involved, from setting up the room itself to accommodate the prisoner, to the person putting together the drugs, the people that administer the drugs themselves. They’re all accomplices to a state-administered death, no matter how justified a person may be in carrying out the sentence. Maybe it used to be more “barbaric”, with an individual pulling the lever to drop the floor for hangings, or dropping the axe or guillotine for beheadings, or the group pulling the triggers in a firing squad. But it’s still a sponsored death of a human being for witnesses to see. That’s horrific to me.

I do think that a last resort may be best for the worst of the worst, and no I don’t have a better plan for dealing with those. Maybe if Ted Bundy had been given a life sentence without parole instead of the electric chair, he might’ve escaped to kill more people, doing more harm in the long run. Maybe of John Wayne Gacy was given some kind of life sentence instead of lethal injection he may have contributed to society in some way, maybe by writing down his thoughts and thought processes to be examined to identify patterns that can be sought out to stop others from committing similar crimes. Maybe there was more to be learned about the most dangerous people that could be found and taken in as data to save other lives somehow.

Maybe this can be done with Dylann Roof. Maybe with enough research and observation, and never allowing him back into the world at large we can learn what drove him to do what he did. Family history, personal influences, entertainment preferences, education, maybe these metrics can be used to better seek out and stop such behaviors. Maybe these points can help us to stop the next shooter from murdering more people in cold blood.

That’s a lot of maybes, I know. But in the face of the certainties – we’re sanctioning the ending of a life, by the state, by our legal system, that the innocent are meant to carry out – I appreciate the maybes.

Further, I don’t mean to pass judgment on anyone who feels this sentence is justified. This isn’t a situation with any clear right or clear wrong side; there is so much involved, and so much of it personal, that it’s unclear it may ever be resolved to where everyone is happy with the outcome. If you think Roof’s sentence is justified, I may disagree with you from all of what I’ve said above, but you may have perfectly good rationale as to why you feel the way you do. And you may be 100% right in those justifications.

But simply for myself, I wish it had been a life sentence without the possibility of parole. From simply a personal perspective, I would like to live ideally in a society where crime is not punished by the end of a life. I may not believe in divine punishment or a higher power, but I do believe life is as sacrosanct as anything can possibly be. And for what I’ve said above, and that basic precept, I myself am against the death penalty.

If you disagree, please feel free to elaborate in comments for everyone’s better understanding. I look forward to your opinions and reasons.

Stand tall for what you believe in, my friends. Don’t be afraid to question them, but when you have conviction, I hope you’ll hold to it.