Dylan Roof was sentenced to death on January 11 for the murder of 9 parishioners during Bible study at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church. Roof was sentenced for crimes that caused untold suffering to the nine families of those at Mother Emanuel, the surviving victims and the entire community.
Roof seemed so intent on not allowing the jury to hear evidence of mental illness, that he took a step which in fact demonstrated mental illness – he chose to represent himself at the sentencing hearing. This bizarre twist both sealed his own fate with the jury and left the victims’ families and the public with little but disturbing glimpses of how a young man could become so filled with racism and violence.
Over the past 19 months, the surviving victims and their families have been united in their desire to talk about the lives of their loved ones. Over that time, many have spoken publicly about the remarkable lives of faith, service and compassion exhibited by the individuals who were killed. Since then, some of the families have since worked tirelessly to reduce gun violence.
They have, in most cases, shown more interest in talking about the lives of their loved ones than in giving further notoriety to the defendant who cut those lives short.
The victims’ families were never united, though, in support of the death penalty as a final outcome. Each had his or her own story; some spoke – remarkably – of forgiveness; others of not allowing a racist defendant to fill their days with vengeance on top of the pain they already suffered. Many spoke of the need to not simply be “polite” but to work diligently to end racism in everyday life. Those who opposed the death penalty were not asked to express those views to the jury.
The fact that the victims’ families never expressed a united preference for the death penalty is yet another indicator that opinions regarding the death penalty have changed. In the early 80s, death cases were frequently marked by news conferences of screaming victims and repeated cries for execution. This case was distinctly different.
The victims’ families who expressed opposition (either privately or publicly) to the death penalty over the past year and a half are supported by changing views on the death penalty. New death sentences and executions are increasingly rare. In 2016, approximately 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States, which is a 40 year low. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, showing just how infrequent use of the death penalty has become.
Support for the death penalty has rapidly eroded over the last two decades and there is an ever greater realization that we can keep society safe and punish the worst offenders by ensuring that they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
At the end of the day, the decision about whether to impose the death penalty is not about what Dylan Roof deserves, it is about who we are as individuals and the kind of society we want to create.
- Does the death penalty work to end racism and violence or add to it?
- Can vengeance and executions ever provide the genuine, ongoing assistance that victims need?
- Do we want – as individuals and as a society – to kill in order to express our outrage at those who have killed?
- Do we want to increase the notoriety of the defendant and put the victims through years of additional court proceedings that re-open wounds?
Americans are increasingly rejecting the death penalty as they answer these questions. Life without the possibility of parole is sufficient. The death penalty does not make us safer and violence does not honor the victims. More often, it perpetuates the racism and violence we seek to end. The death penalty is a false solution; it demeans us all.
An article entitled These Lives Matter, Those Ones Don’t: Comparing Execution Rates by the Race and Gender of the Victim in the US and in the Top Death Penalty States, recently published in the Albany Law Review, tackles data on how the race of a victim impacts the imposition of the death penalty. What the UNC- Chapel Hill researchers found was that that the race of a victim has a statistically significant impact on who does and does not get the death penalty.
The article states that a person who kills a white woman is ten times more likely to be executed than the killer of a Black male. Despite the fact that Black males have the highest chance of being killed, their murders almost never face the death penalty.
Data like this is important to know and process as the fairness of the death penalty is examined. Either one has to accept that the taking of a white life is worse than the taking of a Black life, or that the criminal justice system has deep flaws with the imposition of the death penalty. Where there is a flaw with the most serious of penalties, the best course of action for any civilized people is to discontinue the use of the death penalty.
There were important referendums on the death penalty on the ballot in several states on November 9th. Despite some of these setbacks, actual executions and support for the death penalty continue to be on a downward trend.
Oklahoma amended its State Constitution to protect the death penalty and declare that it cannot be deemed cruel and unusual punishment by state courts.
Voters in Nebraska decided to reinstate the death penalty, after it was eliminated by state legislators last year.
Lastly, California voters rejected a proposition that would have repealed the death penalty, despite what appeared to be growing support heading into the election. To make matters worse in California, voters voted to speed up the state’s appellate process for people sentenced to death.
We must continue to fight to maintain the progress we have made towards abolishing the death penalty.
In 1997, Phillip Davis, who was an 18 year old, with a borderline intellectual capacity, entered a guilty plea to two counts of murder. The state sought the death penalty and prepared to pick a jury it could convince that Phillip should die for his crimes.
While seating the jury, the state sought to dismiss the one African American potential juror because she wore a character tee shirt to court, wore cross earrings, and had an estranged brother with pending criminal charges. The one African American was removed from the jury because of her brother’s pending criminal charges, despite the fact that several white jurors were allowed to serve despite indicating that they had close family members with criminal convictions. Davis’s attorney challenged the jury selection process at the time of trial, but the challenge was denied.
North Carolina has a long history of ignoring blatant racial bias in jury selections for capital trials. Ken Rose, attorney with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation told the Citizen Times that”…North Carolina appellate courts have not enforced Batson and we’re hoping that’s going to change because the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions.” The tide seems to be on the verge of changing in Buncombe County.
Late last month, Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams agreed that Davis should have a new sentencing hearing based on what appears to be racial bias in jury selection. The hearing is scheduled for November 14.
Carolina Justice Policy Center has long been an advocate for eliminating racial bias in capital jury selection. The practice of eliminating African Americans from capital juries is one of many reasons we believe the death penalty should end in North Carolina. We are hopeful that this courageous stand against racial bias by Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams will help other District Attorneys offices across the state re-evaluate their training and policies around eliminating racial bias.
For more details, read the full Citizen-Times article.
After gaining national attention for botching it’s last execution in 2014, Ohio is trying yet another drug cocktail.
This time it will be following Oklahoma’s lead – another botched execution state – and using a 3 drug protocol that includes midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride. These drugs do not have to come from a compounding pharmacy, but would proceed “behind a secrecy law that frees it from accountability for unlawful and unsafe practices,” according to attorneys Allen Bohnert and Timothy Sweeney.
North Carolina enacted a law in 2015 which also allowed it to remove a physician’s oversight from the execution process and to secretly obtain drugs used for lethal injection.
Major drug companies have stopped selling drugs to states that have used them in executions. Ohio officials appear to have found a manufacturer willing to provide the individual drugs and Gov. Kasich may soon be in the position of deciding whether to proceed with an execution date.
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two brothers will receive more than $1 million from the state of North Carolina after they were wrongfully imprisoned for three decades in the killing of an 11-year-old girl, but for one of them, the windfall isn’t the issue.
“It ain’t about money,” said Henry McCollum, 51, who, along with his 47-year-old brother Leon Brown, was pardoned by Gov. Pat McCrory. “It was about just being able to see that I was innocent of a crime I was charged with. It was just a blessing to be out here, to live a normal life.”
The pardon qualifies each of the brothers for $50,000 from the state for every year they were imprisoned, with a limit of $750,000 each. The compensation still needs to be approved by a state agency, but it is considered a formality. It’s not clear exactly when they could get the money.
McCrory’s office announced Friday that he had signed the pardons.
Defense attorneys have said the brothers were scared teenagers who had low IQs when they were questioned by police and coerced into confessing. McCollum was then 19, and Brown was 15.
The DNA from cigarette butts found at the scene doesn’t match Brown or McCollum, and fingerprints taken from a beer can also found there didn’t belong to them either. No physical evidence connects them to the crime, a judge and prosecutor acknowledged last fall.
Based largely on their confessions, both were initially given death sentences, which were overturned. Upon retrial, McCollum was again sent to death row, while Brown was convicted of rape and sentenced to life.
The path to freedom began in early September after a judge vacated their convictions and ordered their release, citing new DNA evidence that points to another man killing and raping 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983. The inmate whose DNA was on the cigarette is already serving a life sentence for a similar rape and slaying that happened less than a month after Sabrina’s killing.
Current Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who didn’t prosecute the men, has said he’s considering whether to reopen the case and charge the other man. The cigarette butt was tested as part of the recent investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a one-of-its-kind investigative panel.
The brothers are still trying to come to terms with the changes that occurred in the outside world while they were behind bars. When McCollum walked off of death row, he needed help putting on the seatbelt in his father’s car. At the time, he had never owned a cellphone and was unaccustomed to the Internet. Each man was given $45 by prison officials when they left.
Brown learned the governor had pardoned him and his brother on Thursday night as he watched the news at his sister’s home in Fayetteville.
“I was upstairs in my room, because I wanted to be by myself when I hear,” he said. “Well, when he said it, right, tears start coming from my eyes. Tears of joy. And my sister, she ran upstairs. When she had hugged me, right, I had laid my head on her shoulder, crying. I couldn’t stop crying, you know? It felt — it felt good.”
And now that he’s free, Brown suggests that he’s ready to get about.
“I do want to learn how to drive,” he said. “Because I wasn’t able to do that years ago. But now I have the opportunity to do it.”
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.