Dylann Roof: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

January 7, 2017 Off By Michael
Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof Mugshot
Credits: NBC News

Each year we get a clean slate to write a new story. I’m a firm believer that some things, thoughts or activities should not be carried over into a new year. For me, the cold, calculated murder of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, by Dylann Roof in 2015 has caused me to rethink my position on capital punishment.

You see, all of my adult life, I have been against the death penalty. As a managing editor of a newspaper and as a criminal defense lawyer, I advocated for the abolition of it.

The sentencing phase of Roof’s trial begins the first week of the New Year. Roof has petitioned the court to act as his own attorney at this stage. He has notified the court that he will not call any mental health experts to explain why he should receive a life sentence over death. He seems to be asking for death. His mental state is crucial to whether he lives or dies. Neither will he call any witnesses to beg for his life. Nor does he want to sit in court and listen to the wonderful lives his victims had up until the moment he shot them to death. He has asked the court to limit witness impact testimony by the government in his case.

When I was a working criminal defense lawyer, I handled five death-penalty cases, winning each one. A win in a death penalty case is when your client gets a life sentence rather than death. Mental health evidence is central to providing reasons why the state should not kill a convicted murderer. Roof’s whole reasoning for not introducing evidence of his mental state is tied to his white supremacy belief. He also believes that psychology is a fake medical science concocted by Jews, whom he hates with a passion, almost as potent as the hatred he has for Black people.

We open 2017 much as we began 1977, with an up close and personal relationship with the death penalty. Forty years ago, Gary Gilmore was executed by a Utah firing squad. He was the first American executed in 10 years, as the Supreme Court had halted the practice to determine if it violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But Gilmore did not want to appeal his conviction. Utah obliged him, ending his life.

As the 26 year-old managing editor of The Macon Courier (Macon, Georgia) I likened capital punishment to state murder in a January 19, 1977 editorial condemning Gilmore’s execution.

“Just as W. E. B. Dubois assailed the ears of America calling for the outlawing of lynching; just as Frederick Douglass before him burned the ears of America for the abolition of slavery; just as Martin Luther King, Jr. paraded for peace in America, this editor will assault the American mentality until the penalty of death has been removed from the law books of the land,” I wrote.

On March 22, 1977, I debated the efficacy of capital punishment on a panel at Mercer University with Joe Hendricks, Dean of Students at Mercer and Derek Alpharans representing the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The death penalty cannot be dealt with fairly without first dealing with the racism in our criminal justice or maybe I should say criminal injustice system,” I argued.

My anti-capital punishment sentiments are rooted in my religious experience and my political belief that it is not equally applied with respect to when black people kill white people versus when white people kill black people. Notwithstanding the fact, when black people kill other black people the death penalty is seldom applied. If the death penalty is to remain, this racial inequality must be eliminated.

In the late 1970s, my views on this topic were buttressed by a 1972 study conducted by the Georgia Board of Corrections. This study in my home state concluded that 76 percent of all executions in Georgia between the years 1943-1965 were carried out against Black offenders.

Nationally, Dr. Mark Riedel, at that time a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, released a study which concluded that while more than half of the murder victims in the country were Black, the victim was white 87 percent of the time where the offender was sentenced to die. In half of those cases, the offender was non-white.

“The right of the state to determine life or death for members of this society must cease. America has a clear policy which separates religion and government. After all, America is a nation-state, she is not a God,” I wrote in a piece for the Tuskegee Voice on May 21, 1977.

Four years later, the doors leading to “Old Smokey,” Georgia’s electric chair, were wide open. Many of the men being put to death were Black. Assailing the conscience of America through words did not seem quite enough, so I enrolled into law school. During my nearly two decades of the active practice of law, I encountered five Black men who were headed toward a date with “Old Smokey.”

I fought hard for them partly because I did not want to witness their electrocution, but primarily because, I believed that the government did not create the life and thus should not have the right to execute those men. We were lucky, or blessed, or both. Four of them will live their natural lives out in prison. One may walk out of prison in 2030.

Forty years after I began my journalistic advocacy against the death penalty the startling numbers are not much different. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Legal Defense Fund (NAACP-LDF) study, July 2016, concludes that of 82 percent of all studies of state executions carried out since 1976, those who murdered white people were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Black people.

Harold Michael Harvey, a long time opponent of capital punishment shown here wearing a baseball cap, kneeled to pray moments before the State of Georgia was scheduled to execute Troy Davis, September 20, 2011. Davis received a six hour stay from the U. S. Supreme Court, but just prior to midnight, he was executed.

The raw data is sobering. Only 31 whites have been put to death for murdering a Black person since 1976, while 297 Black men have been executed where there was a white victim. Moreover, Black transgressors still are rarely sentenced to death for killing another person of color. Perhaps, this fact accounts for the rising number of homicides committed in the Black community where the victim and the assailant are non-white.

Then Roof comes along, cold, cunning, calculating and unremorseful. His mind warped by the white supremacist ethos. If Roof has a heart, it pumps blood only as if the emotion of love is a foreign antibody that should be rooted out and allowed no space in it.

I am haunted by Roof’s words in his own hand written jailhouse journal:

“I want to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry.” 

He has unsettled my lifetime of anti-death penalty advocacy. If ever a case cried out for state murder, it is this case. I am now of the opinion, that capital punishment should remain on the law books.

However, capital punishment should only be applied in the most gruesome, willful and sinister acts of violence against another person or persons. Clearly, Roof’s execution of the Emanuel Nine meets every prong of this test.

There was no question in Roof’s mind what he intended to do the evening he walked into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof admitted to investigators that he had ample time to walk out of the church and do nothing. Instead, he carried out his intent with deadly precision. His planning and the execution of his plan merit his intentional and willful execution by lethal injection from a person acting under color of federal law.

So what if he is a martyr to the cause of the white supremacists? I have never known a martyr who was not dead and permanently stopped from actively advocating the merits of their cause.

God have mercy on my soul.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.