There is no mystery about who walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last summer and, after sitting through a prayer meeting, methodically shot nine people to death. The gunman was Dylann Roof, then a 21-year-old with a mushroom haircut and a heart filled with hate. He offered through his attorneys to plead guilty to the murders — which he reportedly confessed to committing in hopes of starting a race war — if the death penalty was taken off the table. But the Department of Justice refused, and so on Monday a federal trial will begin that is completely unnecessary.
What Roof did is reprehensible. The murders were premeditated, conceived within a worldview of racial hatred and white supremacy, and carried out with cold-blooded efficiency. Roof chillingly informed one member of the prayer group that he would let her live to tell the world what happened. Such emotionally charged, horrific acts feed a public demand for execution, as though yet another death would atone for Roof’s brutal crimes.
Yet the death penalty is the wrong punishment — not just for low-profile murderers, but also for notorious ones, such as Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose execution is pending, or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — whose execution The Times initially agreed with but then, 11 years later, realized was wrong.
The death penalty is wrong for a range of reasons. It is applied inconsistently and disproportionately against minorities; the judicial system is too easily gamed by prosecutors eager to win at any cost; it’s impossible to ensure an innocent person won’t be executed. But the overarching argument against capital punishment is that killing another person is morally wrong, whether done out of hatred or as an act of state-sanctioned vengeance. And that is why we urge California voters to support Proposition 62 to end the death penalty, and reject Proposition 66, which would speed up the process.
It is appalling crimes such as these that test the resolve of a moral claim. The killings in Charleston caused incalculable pain to the victims’ families, to the church community in which the victims prayed, to the city in which they lived, and to the nation we all share. But to execute the perpetrator of those horrific murders achieves neither justice nor public good. While some of the victims’ families supported seeking the death penalty, others, who have famously already forgiven Roof for the agony he has caused, opposed the move.
If Roof eventually is executed — he also faces state capital charges — it will be at the end of a needless and costly series of trials and appeals, which will freshen emotional wounds and, by extension, make killers of us all. It’s hard to see that as justice.