Dylann Roof never showed remorse for killing nine churchgoers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Video provided by Newsy Newslook
It came as no surprise that a federal jury recommended the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the unapologetic, unrepentant young man who in June 2015 massacred nine African Americans inside a historic church in Charleston, S.C. Not only did he deliberately target innocent parishioners in the midst of Bible study for the sole purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy, but the trial was as one-sided as could be. Deliberations took less than three hours.
Given the indisputable evidence of guilt and premeditation, the only possible defense against the charges would have been insanity. However, Roof’s rejection of mental illness as an affirmative defense at trial and as mitigation in sentencing speaks volumes about his mission. Such a legal strategy would, from his perspective, have negated any legitimacy to his hateful agenda. It would have suggested that his racist ideology was merely a product of a diseased mind, not a valid political position. Even as he stood firing round after round at his helpless victims, Roof proclaimed, “I’m not crazy,” according to witness testimony.
Roof’s refusal to mount a case against death, to call any witnesses on his behalf, wasn’t so much because of his stated desire to spare his family the embarrassment. That horse had long left the barn by virtue of his atrocious crime. More likely, his posture reflects a stoic readiness — as a young rebel with a cause — to become a martyr. Like-minded racists would view Roof as a hero, and would invoke his name and the government’s attempt to silence him through the death penalty as a rallying cry for white supremacy. As one skinhead vowed shortly after the church shooting, “Dylann will be my next tattoo.”
By virtue of his death sentence, Roof is guaranteed greater celebrity. Any appellate actions on his behalf and any steps in preparation for his execution will undoubtedly be publicized widely, along with a reminder of his offensive motivation for the assault. Having him instead reside for the rest of his life behind prison walls in obscurity would have been a far more palatable outcome.
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Just as Roof rejected the idea of claiming mental illness as defense or mitigation, the government rejected an offer for him to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Although the prosecution was successful in seeking the death penalty, the trial was costly in more than just a monetary sense. We were already well aware of Roof’s despicable attitudes toward blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, feminists and gays. But thanks to the prosecution’s decision to have Roof’s jailhouse journal read into evidence during the trial’s penalty phase, his hateful musings became quoteworthy material for major news outlets around the country.
Of course, Roof is hardly the first to have his anger-filled opinions disseminated widely on the coattails of a killing spree. Our collective fascination with bizarre crimes — cleverly repackaged as a desire to understand aberrant behavior — has us as a willing audience for all sorts of violent malcontents. But we must avoid lending any credibility to such rants and raves.
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Ever since Theodore Kaczynski had his Unabomber manifesto published in The Washington Post under the threat of continuing attacks, it has become fashionable to characterize whatever a mass murderer articulates as ideological justification for violence as a manifesto. However, the term “manifesto” is typically used to describe a policy declaration by a person of prominence. When Roof corrected us by insisting that his writings were not to be considered a manifesto, it was the first truthful statement he had made.
Roof’s ugly words hardly deserve the amount of news attention they have been afforded up to and during his trial. Now that his day in court is over, let us hope that his time in the limelight will be over as well.