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Four years ago, Dylann Roof became the first person sentenced to death in the United States for a federal hate crime. In 2015, when I learned how he crept into a historically Black church, spraying the worshippers with bullets right after a prayer, I became filled with shock, grief and rage.
Imagining the last moments of those nine souls at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I felt shocked that a terrorist agent of white supremacy would stoop so low. I felt grief-stricken over the immense loss those nine families suffered. Most importantly, I felt outraged that then-21-year-old Dylann Roof would be free to take more breaths while innocent Black people were once again massacred.
Despite hundreds of years of slavery, lynchings, bombings, massacres, and police shootings of Black people, it’s incredible that it took a Black presidency for the country to extend capitol punishment to violent racists. And yet, I’ve come to the conclusion that allowing the government to kill Dylann Roof is wrong.
U.S. death penalty: unequal and inaccurate
Opponents of the death penalty continue to argue that states carry it out in an arbitrary way that disproportionately targets Black men and low-income people. Data shows it doesn’t deter crime. The long list of exonerees and updated DNA technology have proven the death penalty is an ineffective system that sweeps up innocent people in its wake.
Meanwhile, Roof, who refuses to condemn his particularly heinous actions even now, qualifies for the death penalty in every logical way.
Unlike Oklahoma death row offender John Grant—a man who suffered child abuse in state-run facilities—Dylann Roof isn’t a low-income minority abused by the system. Unlike Julius Jones—who has maintained his innocence for 22 years in a case riddled with racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct—Dylann Roof admitted to the crime without remorse.
Honestly, Black people in America have every reason to support Roof’s execution. But we only need one reason to oppose his execution and all others: because the U.S. government shouldn’t have the power to decide which of its citizens lives or dies.
Death Penalty is a “cruel and unusual” violation of the U.S. Constitution
In fact, even the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the death penalty in the early 1970s. Justices called the practice “cruel and unusual punishment,” a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The justices also noted states carry out executions in “arbitrary and capricious ways.” Though some consider it a targeted system because low-income folks and Black people are more likely to face executions.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after federal guidelines for juries were updated, studies compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union indicate defendants are still more likely to face the death penalty in crimes involving a White murder victim and less likely when the case involves a minority victim.
In Oklahoma specifically, a death penalty commission released a report in 2017 calling on Oklahoma to extend its moratorium on executions. The report cited similar racial disparities prevalent in the state’s handling of executions.
Conservative leaders push to repeal death penalty in 10 states
Notably, ten people have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row. That number jumps to at least 186 exonerated individuals across the nation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Therefore, accepting the death sentence for one individual we despise puts innocent people at risk. People across the political spectrum are beginning to agree that it doesn’t make sense to recognize the criminal legal system is seriously flawed on one hand while allowing that same system to wield God-like power on the other.
Republicans in Utah and Ohio are leading bipartisan efforts to repeal their state’s death penalty. After experiencing a change of heart, pro-life Republican Rep. Lowry Snow (R-Utah) has drafted a bill with his colleagues that would repeal the death penalty.
“The More I believe that God, or a higher power, is in the details of life and death, both. And I think when we as mortals get involved, especially in a legal capacity…we interfere in that process,” Snow told Deseret News in October.
In total, as many as ten states are advancing Republican-led death penalty repeal efforts in 2021. They include: Utah, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, Kentucky, Georgia, Washington State and Virginia, which approved its repeal of the death penalty in March.
U.S. government shouldn’t have God’s power
Currently, political debates in the U.S. often center on economic comparisons between liberal, European democracies. Yet, we share an unlikely bond with some of the world’s most violently repressive, anti-democratic nations. The U.S. remains among the top executors of the world. Only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt execute more of its own people, according the Death Penalty Information Center, which noted execution totals are unknown for Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria.
It’s not completely clear what restorative justice could look like in place of executions, even as some states begin to draft alternatives.
But one thing is crystal clear: a country that barely survived an overthrow from supporters of the previous administration, a country whose police officers kill 1000 residents a year, and a country that holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners shouldn’t have the power to decide who lives or dies. Period.