Don’t give Roof case such power

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP/ED - John M. Crisp, an op/ed colum­nist for Tri­bune News Ser­vice, teaches in the English Depart­ment at Del Mar Col­lege in Cor­pus Christi, Texas. Read­ers may send him email at jcrisp@del­ © 2017, Tri­bune Con­tent Agency, LLC

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 state­sanc­tioned 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 were 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 con­sid­ered the penalty phase of Roof’s trial this week, and by Tues­day af­ter­noon it made its de­ci­sion be­tween its only two op­tions: life in prison with­out pa­role, or death. It chose death.

Ei­ther way, Roof would 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.

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 as 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.


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