Attorneys for Dylann Roof, the confessed gunman in the Charleston church shooting, announced yesterday that their client was willing to plead guilty to state murder charges in return for a sentence of life without parole.
The announcement came during a hearing on whether to extend a gag order imposed by state judge J. C. Nicholson regarding information about the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. There was considerable debate over how much should be released that would not cause renewed trauma for the victims’ families. At that hearing, the public defenders representing Roof added that another way to prevent further trauma would be to avoid a trial altogether by allowing Roof to plead guilty to nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.
The local solicitor, or district attorney, Scarlett Wilson, has said that she intends to seek the death penalty for Roof when the case goes to trial next summer. Earlier this month, Wilson said that no other punishment is appropriate for Roof since he committed “the ultimate crime.” However, public defender Bill McGuire said that Roof was willing to accept life imprisonment as a way to prevent a setback in the families’ healing process.
Roof had already indicated last month that he wanted to plead guilty to federal hate crimes charges. However, his attorneys in the federal case said they were not willing to advise Roof to plead guilty until they knew whether federal prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty. As of now, federal prosecutors have not indicated which way they’re leaning, though 18 of the 33 federal charges carry the death penalty.
I hope that Wilson and the U. S. Attorney for South Carolina, William Nettles, at least consider taking the death penalty off the table. There really is no doubt that Roof is guilty. He has already confessed to his barbaric acts, and even without that, his racist manifesto leaves little doubt of his intentions that night. Moreover, given the current concerns about the cocktail used for lethal injections, it’s all but certain that a death sentence will trigger years of appeals that will prevent the families from healing.
Given the mountain of evidence against Roof, you would think that would be even more incentive for Wilson and Nettles to limit the chances of a colossal blunder derailing the proceedings. Indeed, Nicholson has already indicated that it could be difficult for Roof to get a fair trial due to the large amount of publicity. In so doing, he may have handed Roof an argument to use on appeal in the event he is sentenced to death.
I find myself drawing parallels to the case of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Tsarnaev’s attorneys let it be known that their client wanted to plead guilty, but federal prosecutors refused to rule out the death penalty. Since Tsarnaev, like Roof, was manifestly guilty, it’s hard not to wonder if prosecutors only sought the death penalty out of some desire to get their pound of flesh. They had to know that it could be years before Tsarnaev is actually hauled into the gurney, if at all. Additionally, they continued to pursue the death penalty despite arguing that the city of Boston as a whole was a victim. Tsarnaev’s attorneys contend that this made a fair trial in Boston impossible.
For me, though, once you get past the hyperbole, the issue is more practical. You do not punish barbarism with barbarism–especially when sentencing someone to death could make the defendant a martyr. When Wilson announced she intended to seek the death penalty, she said she did so because “justice in our state calls for the ultimate punishment.” No, Scarlett. Justice for these families would be to allow Roof to die in prison and go before the Supreme Judge for whatever punishment he may deserve.