Killing Dylann Roof Won’t Make Us or the Death Penalty Any Less Racist


Death PenaltyBy Jeffery Robinson

The impact of race on criminal justice is one of the hottest topics of our time. Today’s police-shooting videos have not revealed something new, they have revealed, in a new way, a legacy of racial hatred and violence that is embedded in our nation’s DNA, and more and more Americans are waking up to that fact. So, if we are ready to address the impact of racism in the criminal justice system, what do the remedies look like?

Let me tell you one thing that will not work—sentencing Dylann Roof to death. Jury selection for his federal death penalty case in the Charleston shooting last summer starts on Nov. 7.

When I heard about his slaughter of nine black worshipers in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, I wanted vengeance. I wanted his blood. I grew up as a black child in the South in the 60s and spent the past 34 years as a criminal defense lawyer. I’d seen too many black lives sacrificed to racism, snuffed out by violence or wasted by our criminal justice system. Snapshots of Dylann Roof began to emerge—here wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa, there in sunglasses holding a confederate flag and a gun. My rage grew, and I was sure that he deserved to die. I had long been opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances, yet I wished the death penalty on Dylann Roof.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I understood that, one: his death would not get me what I wanted, and two: his execution wouldn’t help solve the problem of racism in the criminal justice system. It would only serve to reinforce the legacy of racial injustice in our use of the death penalty.

After 34 years of practicing in the criminal justice system and studying its history, here is what I know to be true: the racism that has marred our country’s development since its beginnings is inextricable from the death penalty. Every credible study evaluating race and capital punishment in America has shown the same thing: The death penalty is not reserved for the worst of the worst, but mostly for black and brown people convicted of killing white people. None of this is surprising given our history of segregation and lynching.

What I also know to be true is that prosecutors sometimes exclude black jurors from death-penalty and non-death penalty trials for no reason but their race; and only in the most extreme and rare instances are they held accountable. Don’t think this just happens in the South. I saw the exact same practices we associate with Dixie in courtrooms in the Pacific Northwest. This, like every other aspect of race in our country, is a national problem that stretches from sea to shining sea.

Abhorrent racial considerations, instead of the mere facts, seep into jury’s deliberations. In Texas, a black defendant was predicted to be violent based on race and was therefore sentenced to death. And for those who say the Supreme Court will likely reverse the conviction, remember, the case only got to the highest court because numerous other judges heard this evidence and saw no problem. And, when innocent people are sentenced to death, we find that 93 of 156 innocent people released from death rows across this country are black and brown.

Our problems with race and the criminal justice system run deep and will take years of work to resolve. Some might think that sentencing Roof to death would demonstrate that black lives actually matter and somehow erase the legacy of racism and the death penalty. If we kill him, won’t that show that we are not racists?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Killing Roof would not put us on the path to redemption. His execution would not dispel the racism that rules who we execute in America. Seeking his death would not somehow “even the score.” And remember, the human brain is not fully developed until about 25 years of age. Are we actually going to try to cleanse the racism from the death penalty by executing a person who was 21 years old at the time of his offense?

History would not judge us kindly for such a killing.

Roof has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with no parole. This would save us from re-hashing the most difficult parts of his case and open the door to talk fully and in loving memory of his victims, including the Reverend Clementa Pinckney who, if alive, would be leading the discussions we desperately need to reform our criminal justice system.

The ugly truth about my initial desire for Roof’s execution is that it might somehow validate the very part of our criminal justice system most infected by racism. People could offer up Roof’s execution as an example of how the death penalty is meted out fairly in America, and thereby increase the legitimacy of a system that unfairly and disproportionately continues to kill black and brown people. Because if Roof is sentenced to death and forgotten in the minds of many Americans, we would go back to executing black and brown people like we always have, and valuing white lives over the lives of people of color.

What I want is an America that does not nurture the hate in Roof’s heart. And killing him won’t get me that either.

Jeffrey Robinson is ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the ACLU Center for Justice


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16 thoughts on “Killing Dylann Roof Won’t Make Us or the Death Penalty Any Less Racist”

  1. Marina Kalugin

    Overturn the death penalty.. Although that proposition isn’t perfect, it is better than what we have now….Once the death penalty is overturned another proposition could better tweak the issues, right?

    One step at a time, right?   VOTE

  2. hpierce

    Ok… will fully agree with Marina on one point…

    VOTE (and I’ll not opine HOW you should vote, on ANY issue).

    If you haven’t already voted, or do not do so tomorrow, I care not one iota for your opinion(s) on the results of the election(s).

    [Unless you are too young, or are unjustly precluded from voting, of course]

  3. Marina Kalugin

    PS>   if you voted for the wrong person because you voted too early, you can still revote….just ask hp  that person may have more time to explain it to ya …and actually works manning or womanning the pollling booths..

    the one who thinks if nothing else, I am an out of the box kinda person

    Heck I get in trouble for sharing invonient truths …it the guard nd polices unions are against this one…well.

    the ONLY folks whose lives may really be in jeopardy if criminals are released are those who set them up for crimes they didn’t do….some may be family or friends, but most of those who set up the innocent are the crims on the other side of the bars…

    you know…the cops, CHP, military police…the guards and prosecutors….et al…

    the owners of the private run prisons and halfway houses.

    Follow the money and LEARN the truth…if you want to change your vote before or after D day tomorrow…or rather E day…..ask someone who knows…

    I have already shared how several times….on previous threads….right?

    wtf is a better search engine?  right


    1. Barack Palin

      if you voted for the wrong person because you voted too early, you can still revote

      I don’t think you can change your vote in CA, the only states that allow that are Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin

      1. Biddlin

        One wonders where one may change it after the election? None of the US states or territories.

        I also wonder why David allows Marina to continually post outright lies?

      2. Marina Kalugin

        gee BP….there is always a way, and heck I figured some of the ways out long ago..

        one is not ever changing a vote, they had just made a mistake …happens all the time

        just ask hp  right?   that person is an expert   🙂

        the hint:  if one makes a mistake on an absentee ballot they can check the box and ask for another one….

        Sometimes people even forget if they already voted or not…or whether they even got their ballot

        Why do you think there are so many provisional ballots and such…

        of course, if you are at the polls, guess what  – one  can still walk out of the booth and say  oops…I filled in the wrong box…jees …



    2. hpierce


      Yet again, Marina you are either wrong or lie…

      You get up to three swings in CA… if you are VBM (again, wrong, Marina, not called “absentee” anymore… hasn’t been for many years!), that is a ballot you are issued.  If you vote it, sign it, mail it, there is no way to “retrieve” it and get a do-over in CA.  It is what it is. Even if you “vote” it, and then surrender it on Election Day, for a re-do, that ballot was “strike one”…

      If you mess up your ballot on election day, you can return it (before it is placed in the ballot box) [called a “spoiled” ballot], and get another… but CA is a “three strikes” state… you can get up to three ballots issued, but may only vote one.  That’s the law.  And well enforced, particularly in Yolo County.

      [BP, don’t “think”, KNOW… your 9:56 post was correct!]

      Remember… this is a secret ballot… despite what some may say/opine, your vote is NOT tied to your identity, so no one knows how you vote unless you tell them (assuming you do so truthfully)…

      And Marina, if you attempt to vote outside the area where you are legally registered/reside [you’ve indicated you’ve moved], I hope they stop/’nail’ you.  If you have moved outside the school district, congressional district, assembly district, state senate district, etc., please don’t vote on those matters, unless you want to face a charge of perjury/voter fraud…

      This is not a “super-intelligent, Slavic” place… get over it…

  4. Davis Progressive

    if dylann roof gets the dp, he’ll be the rarest of the rare.  most people who get the dp have white victims or are black.  he’ll be neither.

        1. hpierce

          Clarification noted… “insanity” comment remains as postulated… guess “my bad” as to plea… nuance, but you are correct, it was offered by the supposed killer, but has not been accepted… do you oppose either, David?  Either LWOP or mental institution, as needed?

          How would you react, opine, if this guy wiped out your wife, family, David?

          I believe that is a fair question, under the circumstances, your rebuttal to me… pretty sure how I’d react…

          1. David Greenwald

            I support life with the possibility of parole. I can explain why I no longer support LWOP at another time.

            If it were my family – hard to know how I’d react. My reading suggests not every family wants the death penalty for their loved one’s killer. Regardless, there is a reason we have a legal system and an impartial jury not the aggrieved love ones preside.

  5. Tia Will

    Roof has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with no parole.”

    This is an offer that should be accepted. For those of us who believe in accepting full responsibility for our own actions, this is it. Roof is willing to admit to factual guilt without any dubious and/or spurious claims of insanity or other technicality. He chose to act upon his hatred and odious beliefs and is now willing to accept the outcome of those actions without protest or lengthy legal battles. This would have the advantage of not dragging the innocent survivors, family members of those who did not survive, and any innocents who may care about Mr. Roof through an ugly and protracted legal battle. All that would be lost is our hatred and desire for vengeance. A small price to pay to allow Mr. Roof to disappear into obscurity and to promote the positive contributions and memories of the members of this church group to their families, their community and our nation.

    1. hpierce

      If Mr Roof is given LWOP (which I have come to believe is the right outcome), and put in the general population of prison, at his age, what do you think are the chances are that he will live over five years?  Be raped, attacked, even sooner?

      Think Jeff Dahmer… many others… even hardened criminals have morals… a guy who came into a bible study group, was welcomed, and then mowed folk down based on their race?

      Mr Roof’s best chance of living to age 50 is to be acquitted… just saying…

  6. Tia Will


    even hardened criminals have morals”

    Then their best course of action would be to simply ostracize Mr. Roof. I do believe however that you are correct that there is likely to be physical violence directed at Mr. Roof. This is an indictment of our prison system and our cultural normalization of violence. What I would argue for is physical segregation of Mr. Roof for his own protection. This is not coddling a criminal as isolation/segregation in itself is a horrible punishment, but would in my opinion be quite fitting for a crime that all of our society should abhor.

    1. hpierce

      simply ostracize…

      Can/will you elaborate? The rest of your post is unclear as to how the person, if indeed guilty. should be treated/supported by the public weal… and at what cost?

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