News+Opinion » Features

Even following a death sentence, Dylann Roof's fate remains uncertain

Capital Punishment



Before sentencing Dylann Roof to death, jurors were asked to consider the mitigating factors that would spare the 22-year-old white supremacist's life. Together, they unanimously acknowledged that Roof had cooperated with police, quickly confessed to slaying nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church, and had no prior history of violent behavior. With this in mind, the jury was then faced with another question: In light of Roof's young age, would a sentence of life in prison without release offer the possibility of redemption and change. The jurors agreed; Roof was beyond redemption. Now he must pay for his crimes with his life.

Leading up to Roof's recent hate crime trial, state and federal prosecutors grappled over who was responsible for trying the admitted murderer. In an effort to persuade judges to allow Roof's state trial to precede his federal case, state solicitor Scarlett Wilson argued in late June that "despite the fact that there are currently federal death row inmates who have exhausted their appeals (including one from the district of South Carolina), the United States has not carried out a death sentence since March 2003."

Citing the fact that of the more than 70 defendants sentenced to death since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, only three have been executed, Wilson claimed that the state had no confidence that the government would actually execute Roof and she would seek the death penalty in state court regardless of the final federal sentence. Now that federal prosecutors have been able to convince a jury that Roof should die, how much evidence is there to support Wilson's argument?

Since 1988, the federal government has taken slightly more than 200 death penalty cases to trial involving 295 defendants, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. These 295 defendants were taken from a larger group of more than 500 against whom the attorney general had authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Almost 240 of these defendants were able to negotiate a plea or avoid a capital trial for various reasons. Leading up to his federal trial, Roof offered to plead guilty on all counts in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors were unwilling to take the deal.

Those defendants facing a federal capital trial have avoided execution in a number of ways. About 120 have reached a plea agreement before trial, and 22 pled to a lesser sentence during trial. At least three inmates have committed suicide or died in prison before they could be executed by the federal government. Ironically, this is also the same number of federal prisoners who have actually been executed since the government ended its ban on the death penalty. So how does this stack up to South Carolina's ability to execute prisoners on its own?

South Carolina has executed more than 40 defendants since 1976, which is roughly equal to the state's current death row population, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. If sentenced to death by the state, Roof would become the 39th person on death row, which last sent a prisoner to the death chamber in 2011. A 2002 report titled "Twenty-Five Years of Death" by John Blume at the Cornell Law School examined the error rates found during the appeals of South Carolina capital cases. Of the 174 death penalty judgements examined by the state's Supreme Court following a defendant's first appeal attempt, a new trial or resentencing proceeding was granted in almost 40 percent of cases. Most of these decisions resulted from prosecutorial misconduct, instructional error, or evidentiary error.

Although Roof refused to present any evidence in his defense during the final phase of his trial, the convicted killer has until Feb. 10 to file a motion for a new trial. Tyrone Sanders, the father of Roof's youngest victim, Tywanza Sanders, spoke directly to Roof during his sentencing hearing. Sanders first told his son's killer that he needed Roof to look at him before saying that "Each one of us are a little different, but we're all human." As Roof stared forward with a blank look on his face, Sanders asked him to consider that someone in his family might meet a person from Zimbabwe and create a child of a different race. He asked Roof to look around at the different races that filled the courtroom that day and consider the diversity of the world in which he lived. With Roof refusing to look his way, Sanders wished that a law would be enacted that required a limb be cut from Roof with each formal appeal he filed and that the convicted killer's family be made to care for him instead of taxpayers.

While a lengthy appeals process could be expected, both state and federal agencies face a difficult challenge when it comes to executing those sentenced to death — specifically, accessing the drugs necessary for lethal injection. South Carolina relies on a cocktail of three drugs to execute prisoners: an anesthetic, a paralytic, and a final drug that stops the heart and causes death. Due to growing stigma, many manufacturers have refused to distribute the drugs used in lethal injections to state and federal agencies causing widespread shortages. With the start date of Roof's state trial in limbo and his federal case up for appeal, the convicted killer's ultimate fate remains undecided, even after jurors sentenced him to death. At least one family member of Roof's victims asked that his life be spared, preferring that he spend the remainder of his life in jail considering his crimes.

"I still don't want you to die. I want you to be able to sit in that cell," said Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of victim Ethel Lance. "You have made them martyrs. You have made them the face of America. You have given me a voice and a platform I never would have had to crusade for them."

Other members of Mother Emanuel took the opportunity to address Roof to remind him of what awaits. Regardless of Roof's final sentence and who carries out his execution, Emanuel AME church member Marsha Spencer reminded Roof that his plan to incite a race war was uninspired and unoriginal. Following in the footsteps of Charles Manson and Hitler, Roof now awaits the destiny that Spencer laid out before him.

"The last image I want to see of you is you being led away in handcuffs," she told Roof during his sentencing hearing, "to await your gruesome destiny."

Add a comment