No remorse from Roof, no mercy from jury
Columnist Kathleen Parker comments on the death sentence of the teen who killed nine black parishioners.
If Death lingers in courtroom corridors awaiting sentences, this city’s federal courthouse was surely a top destination. On Tuesday, the Reaper’s patience was rewarded with the jury’s return of the death penalty for Dylann Roof.
Roof, who insisted on representing himself during the sentencing phase of his murder trial, was found guilty last month for the slaughter of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
Roof’s self-lawyering is still mystifying when he had at his disposal one of the nation’s best death penalty lawyers, David Bruck, who did represent Roof during the guilt phase that ended last month. Bruck was allowed only to advise Roof during the penalty phase, which began last week, but briefly addressed the judge Tuesday when Roof requested that Bruck address objections.
While the government’s case seemed airtight in covering all the requirements for the death penalty, Roof’s remarks Tuesday took fewer than five minutes.
Roof approached the lectern with a single, yellow, letter-sized sheet of paper for his closing argument. Barely audible, he made essentially two suggestions seemingly aimed at creating doubt about his alleged hatred of black people and his intent in carrying out his mission, which he himself previously identified as wanting to incite racial violence.
“I think it’s safe to say nobody in their mind wants to go to a church and kill people,” he began. Then he contradicted other con- fession statements that he had to do what he did. “In my [FBI confession] tape, I told them I had to do it. ... Obviously that’s not true. Nobody made me do it. I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.” Clarity isn’t his strong suit. Next, Roof challenged the prosecution’s claim that he’s filled with hatred, one of the required aggravating factors in capital cases. He referred to his confession when an FBI agent asked him if he hated blacks. Roof’s reply was, “I don’t like what black people do.”
To the jury, he posited: “If I was really filled with as much hate as I allegedly am, wouldn’t I just say, ‘Yes, I hate black people’?”
Finally, Roof said it was fair to say the prosecutors hated him because they were seeking the death penalty. Then he tutored the court that people hate be- cause they’ve been misled. He also said people think they know what hatred it is, but “they don’t know what real hatred looks like.” Does Roof? Not once during his very brief remarks did Roof say they he regretted his actions, which might have elicited some empathy from those burdened with determining his fate. Indeed, in a jailhouse journal, he wrote he isn’t sorry and hadn’t shed a tear for the “innocent people I killed.”
Tuesday, as he attempted to take on a battery of lawyers hell-bent on ultimate justice, he seemed ever the evil child who, rather than acknowledging the horror and the agony of what he did, was somehow above the process. Expressionless and aloof, as he had been throughout the trial, he was anything but a sympathetic character and certainly no advocate for his continued access to life.
Throughout the proceedings, my mind kept wandering to an earlier case I covered when Bruck was fighting another death penalty — the 1994 trial of Susan Smith, the young mother who rolled her car into a Union, S.C., lake, drowning her two small children.
The crime was heinous, the trial heart-wrenching. At one point during the father’s testimony, the judge had to call for a break because nearly everyone in the courtroom, including the media, was weeping.
Smith threw herself across the defense table, loudly sobbing with the agony of regret and the sorrow of inconsolable loss. Yes, she was responsible for her children’s deaths, but there was no questioning her remorse or doubting that her life in prison would be an endless night of piercing pain.
For death penalty opponents like me, this seemed a far more just end than death would have been. With Roof, there’s plainly no sense of sorrow now — or to come. In the end, evidence of sincere remorse — which is to say, humanity — can be the difference between life and death.