On January 10, 2017, a jury in Charleston, South Carolina sentenced twenty-two year old Dylann Storm Roof to death for shooting nine people in an African-American church. At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Roof represented himself, rejecting the efforts of lawyers appointed for him to present mitigating evidence on his behalf. In his closing argument, Mr. Roof said that it would not do any good for him to ask the jurors to give him a life sentence.
Mr. Roof was undeniably guilty, and quickly confessed. During the guilt phase of his trial (a trial involving the death penalty has separate phases concerning guilt and punishment), his lawyers referred to him as “abnormal,” “delusional,” and “suicidal.” Evidence was presented that his crime was motivated by hostility and fear of African-Americans.
Mr. Roof’s victims had varying opinions about what should happen to him. Some of them said they forgave him and asked that he be spared. Others thought the death sentence was appropriate, since Mr. Roof had killed others without justification. The Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of one of the victims, expressed a poignant ambivalence. She was quoted in the New York Times: “I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’m my mother’s child and with everything that’s happened sometimes I want him to die. . . . It’s like, you know what, this fool continues to just be evil. I’m just glad that they didn’t leave that decision to me.”
At the end of the guilt phase of his trial, Mr. Roof fired his lawyers and elected to proceed as his own counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution includes the right to waive counsel, provided that the defendant is found competent to proceed and is informed of the disadvantages of representing himself. Mr. Roof’s lawyers argued that he was not competent, but the judge found otherwise and allowed the waiver of counsel. Mr. Roof then elected not to present evidence at the sentencing hearing.
Police officers sometimes speak of “suicide by cop,” a description of a situation where a person places himself in a position where officers will be forced to kill him. Mr. Roof’s actions could be described as “suicide by jury.” Since it is not possible, under our laws, for a defendant to agree to a death sentence without the action of a jury, Mr. Roof tried to make it easy for the jury to give him what he apparently wants—to be executed.
But by placing jurors in the position of having to carry out Mr. Roof’s will, we do them injury. The policeman who kill suspects who are committing “suicide by cop” do not emerge unscathed. As one expert puts it, “Officers involved in SBC incidents often feel a sense of powerlessness and manipulation, and this is typically reported to be an especially stressful and demoralizing form of shooting trauma.” Not surprisingly, jurors in capital trials also suffer emotionally, and those who impose death sentences suffer greater PTSD symptoms than those who impose life sentences.
If Mr. Roof doesn’t want to live, why should we care if he is executed? The answer, in my view, is that the justice system is the conscience of the community. Just as the victims, while entitled to express their opinion, cannot determine the sentence, so the defendant should not do so either. Both of them are too close to the issue to be appropriately objective and appropriately merciful. And if we are a nation of laws, we must make certain that even in horrible cases, we do not disregard our most fundamental principles, including the principal that human life is valuable.