The murder of nine people as they prayed in a Charleston, S.C., church struck much of America as the very definition of a hate crime.
The murders at historic Mother Emanuel did not result in the race war self-described white supremacist Dylann Roof said that he wanted to spark. Instead, their deaths, and the astonishing forgiveness from the families of those killed, so moved the state and the country that within weeks, the governor brought down the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse and had it placed in a museum as a relic of the past.
The case also clearly resonated deeply with President Obama, who, in one of the more remarkable moments of his presidency, sang “Amazing Grace” at a memorial service for the victims. He also warned America against “slipping into a comfortable silence again.”
Now, as the federal government seeks the death penalty for 33 charges against Mr. Roof, the case not only has the potential to set legal precedent but to make a statement.
If convicted and sentenced to death, Roof, whose taped confession was shown in court Friday, would be the first person in the United States to face that sanction on a federal level for a hate crime. His trial also marks the first time both the federal government and state prosecutors have pursued death penalty cases against the same person at the same time, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
In some ways, the federal death penalty case against Roof represents a White House keen on underscoring that hate has consequences – a message that comes amid a resurgence of reported hate crimes in the US and at a time when minority communities are feeling a fundamental sense of inequality when it comes to justice and race.
The case could, in part, spark a conversation about history that some Americans say is sorely needed. "I've always viewed this case as a premier opportunity to litigate racism and the destructive issues of race," New York attorney Anthony Ricco, who has participated in 45 death penalty defense cases, told the Charleston Post and Courier. "Unraveling the why is our spiritual release of racism."
Case taps into 'something bigger'
Indeed, some legal scholars suggest the case is more about sending a message – that racial animus has no place in today’s America – than it is about jurisprudence. From a legal perspective, the successful federal push for the death penalty against Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev last year made sense: Massachusetts doesn’t have a death penalty. But South Carolina does. The state has executed 43 people since 1985, all for murder.
“I understand why the President came [to Charleston] and all that, it’s perfectly legitimate and speaks well to President Obama’s character and concern,” says Miller Shealy, a former assistant United States attorney who is now a professor at the Charleston School of Law. “But the interesting thing … is that there are no obvious reasons why Uncle Sam should jump [and take the lead on the case]. No one is going to allege any national or international links to this crime. [Roof] is a mean lone wolf, but he’s a lone wolf.”
For Charleston, the brick-encrusted colonial city that served as an early market for slaves and where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, the mood varies. Some are concerned about dredging up the horrible events of that day. But others hope for a broader awakening, not just to the impacts of racism but a desire to “tap into something bigger … [like] community healing without violence,” as Jeffrey Frederick, director of Jury Research Services Division in Virginia, tells the Asheville Citizen-Times.
The jury may be the ultimate test of the depth of the city’s forgiveness. Bucking tradition in their own right, Roof’s attorneys never filed for a change of venue, suggesting that Roof’s best hope for life lies with those whose lives were affected most by his actions.
“In fairness and in mercy, our society does not invoke the death penalty if there are reasons to choose life, a life in prison,” David Bruck, Roof’s lead attorney, told jurors on Wednesday. “We do not behave like the person who committed this crime.”
And there are other racial overtones: 65 percent of African-Americans in Charleston want life imprisonment for Roof versus 65 percent of whites who want him executed, according to a recent University of South Carolina poll. That, some black Charlestonians said, is partly because the death penalty is applied disproportionately to black people.
For many like former North Carolina state Sen. Malcolm Graham – whose sister, Cynthia Hurd, was killed in the attack – the belief that some crimes are too heinous to consider anything less than the death penalty outweighs what he sees and the unequal application of the death penalty against blacks. At the same time, he noted in a Charlotte Observer column, “being a black man in America means wrestling with the issue of capital punishment and the sad reality that blacks are disproportionately punished by death, especially when the victim is white.”
New echoes of the past
Some observers see a logic in holding Roof accountable first to the federal government, given, if nothing else, his stated intent to amplify a call for racist reprisals beyond Charleston. The spike in reported hate crimes during and after a divisive presidential election – and the fact that white nationalists see themselves as having a new platform – also point to the fact that America is still grappling with racism.
“The whole scenario is just so bizarre and brutal, and then you’ve got the racial aspect of it, and it makes it one of the most heinous crimes ever committed,” says Ken Gaines, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. At the same time, he adds, “this is not by any stretch of imagination the only incident [like this] happening in the past. But you wouldn’t expect this kind of activity go on in the 21st century. It shows that it still has roots.”
But Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor in New York, says that, however they view the death penalty, many Charlestonians appear to see Roof’s alleged attack as a reminder of an uglier era, not a sign of things as they are.
“I tend to side with the people in Charleston who are seeing this as a case involving an individual rather than a statement on race in this country,” says Professor Denno, author of “Biology and Violence.” “In fact, it’s glorifying sort of the Dylann Roofs of the world to say that this is something broader.”