logo


no avatar

CRAMER: Torn feelings in response to death penalty in Charleston

• Jun 1, 2016 at 1:00 PM

Last week, we read in the news that federal prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black church members in Charleston, S.C.

This grisly act of violence and racial hatred shocked many of us last year, as the suspect, Dylan Roof, entered into a Bible study on June 17, sat with people, listened to them, and then stood up and started shooting them.

It was indeed an act of racial hatred, with the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church serving as a decades-long leader in the struggle for civil rights. Not only did Roof choose the church specifically for racial reasons, but federal prosecutors in their filing have provided evidence that he singled out victims who were elderly and showed no remorse for his actions. One of his friends pleaded guilty last month to concealing his own knowledge that Roof had planned this attack for the previous six months.

The very act of seeking the death penalty in this federal case is abnormal. As Reuters reported, citing information from the Death Penalty Information Center, only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past 50 years, and none since 2003. The most well-known execution was Timothy McVeigh, the man who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

The families of Roof’s victims have a variety of views on whether Roof should be executed for this act of heinous murder. Some oppose the death penalty due to their religious beliefs. At the initial hearing last year, several family members of victims spoke words of forgiveness. Other families of victims, however, are content to support whatever decision our government deems is appropriate.

And, I must admit, I am torn over this emotionally charged case.

I understand the rationale for the death penalty; the arguments I have heard from advocates of capital punishment. I know that momentum has been for support of the death penalty in our country since 1966, with as many as 80 percent of the nation supporting it in 1994. Current numbers indicate that roughly one-third of Americans oppose it and two-third support it. Still, its use has dropped 60 percent since a peak in 1999.

But I remain unsettled by its use — even in this painfully difficult case. As I wrote a couple of years ago, when discussing the possible death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber, we rank fifth in the world for executions — the list, in order of number of citizens executed, being China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan. Those numbers have not shifted much in the past two years.

Decades of research have demonstrated that the death penalty is not a deterrent. The 14 states without it have homicide rates at or below the national rate. It also costs significantly more to execute someone than to hold them in prison for life without the possibility of parole. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called on those countries that still maintain the death penalty to enter a moratorium with a goal of abolishing its use.

What makes me torn about this case is the racial motivation — which is ironic. After all, for decades scholars have demonstrated that the use of the death penalty disproportionately affects people of color. A study conducted by the Yale University School of Law in 2003 concluded that African-Americans receive the death penalty three times as often as white defendants when the victims are white. Further, killers of whites are often penalized much more severely than those who kill minorities.

There are some who may feel this case will, at the least, tip the scales a bit on the side of justice — putting the same value upon the black church members murdered as we would if the victims were all white.

But I cannot find myself in that place. I want to be clear, I cannot say that the families should forgive Roof; I cannot even say that they should oppose his execution. I cannot imagine the horror they have experienced and would not dare to tell them how to feel or what to desire in response to their grief.

And yet, as a priest, I believe that the death penalty will not bring healing. This is precisely why we, as a society, must continue to work to eliminate the death penalty. In a just society, people who are wracked with grief cannot be asked to determine appropriate punishment.

Dylan Roof — no matter how despicable I find his actions — is a child of God, one whose sense of humanity has been cruelly twisted through a combination of racism present in our culture and his own choices to participate in that racism. But I desire him to come to repentance — something he cannot do in this world if his life is taken from him.

So, I will try hard, very hard, not to preach to the families of the victims. Forgiveness is not mine to give, not even mine to encourage. But I will say to the rest of us, still reeling from the effects of this killing — let’s not answer death with more death. In particular, for those of us who are people of faith, let us find how to answer death with life and opportunity for change.

— By the Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is filling in for the Rev. Henry Idema, who is on vacation, as a Tribune community columnist.

Recommended for You