Dylann Roof’s crime is one of the most horrifying in modern history — the racially motivated massacre of nine peaceful worshipers inside a church. It’s understandable that our nation would want to seek the severest possible punishment for this slaughter.
Yet, as Roof’s death penalty trial began this week, it only served to highlight the flaws and futility of the ultimate punishment.
Roof, whose attorneys say he is too mentally ill to stand trial, was allowed to fire his lawyers and will represent himself during a complex federal death penalty trial. The judge had little choice but to grant Roof’s request, since it is his constitutional right to act as his own attorney.
Now, his trial will be a weeks-long spectacle where Roof can spout his racists views to an international audience and cross examine the survivors of the shooting, as well as the family members of the nine people he killed — an indignity of unimaginable proportions
When people with mental illness represent themselves at trial, we rarely get the truth and reconciliation we are searching for.
Instead, we get Scott Panetti wearing a purple cowboy suit and trying to subpoena Jesus Christ. We get Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. shouting “Heil Hitler” at his trial for the killing of three people at a Jewish center. We get Guy LeGrande, who is still on North Carolina’s death row today, telling the jury to “kiss my natural black ass.”
In Roof’s case, the government could have avoided avoided this circus of a trial.
Many of the victims’ families have been outspoken in opposing the death penalty for Roof. Roof’s attorneys offered a guilty plea in exchange for Roof spending the rest of his life in prison, with no possibility of parole.
Roof would have gone quietly to prison until he died, never to be heard from again. Instead, the government put him center stage by pursuing a death sentence.
If Roof is sentenced to death, it will only trigger years, if not decades, of appeals. And it’s uncertain whether a death sentence would ever be carried out, considering that the federal government has not executed anyone in more than 13 years.
Instead of pointing to the need for capital punishment, Roof’s trial reminds us that even in the the most terrible of cases, the death penalty no longer serves any useful purpose.