Family members showed Dylann Roof mercy. Why can’t prosecutors?

Dylann Roof, right, the 21-year-old man charged with murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, listens to the proceedings with assistant defense attorney William Maguire during a hearing at the Judicial Center in Charleston on July 16, 2015. Photo courtesy Reuters/Randall Hill

(RNS) Support for the death penalty is declining, with executions and death sentences now at their lowest level in decades.

Polls show a majority of Americans are against the death penalty when presented with alternatives, like life without parole. It looks like the death penalty is on its way out, though Texas (responsible for roughly half of all executions) may beg to differ.

Nevertheless, the question must be asked: Doesn’t the death penalty still have a place in our contemporary world for the “worst of the worst,” for people like Dylann Roof?

It’s hard to find any mercy for this young man who killed nine African-Americans as they gathered for prayer, worship and Bible study in the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. He spewed racism and hatred on social media and even at the scene of the crime, where he said to church members: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

And now he faces the death penalty — with 33 federal charges including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses.

Mercy seems like an unreasonable thing to ask.

But mercy is precisely what flowed from the hearts of the families of the victims after the killing. And as we consider justice for the victims’ families, it only seems reasonable to listen to what they said:

“I forgive you.”

Those were the words of Nadine Collier, as tears rolled down her face for her 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance. And she didn’t stop there:

“You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

Then there was Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson: “I would just like him to know that … I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent.”

Those words were said two days after the crime before the bodies of those killed were even laid to rest. Grace and mercy are hard things to justify or legitimate. They don’t seem instinctive or sensible. But they do sound like Jesus who said, “Inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven” and “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

It seems that only a profound faith in Jesus could give someone the strength to say to their transgressors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Especially, when it seems like they know exactly what they’re doing.

Felicia Sanders, who survived the massacre by faking dead but lost her 26-year-old son, prayed that God would have mercy on Roof.

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons, declared with defiant hope: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … hate won’t win.”

Even in the midst of unthinkable evil, love can still win. This truth lies at the heart of the Christian faith, as Jesus forgave those who were killing him.

President Obama went down to Charleston and applauded the mercy of the survivors, and ended one of his best speeches by singing “Amazing Grace.”

It’s noteworthy that the words of that song — “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” — were written by a recovering racist. John Newton was a former white supremacist, a captain who drove slave ships and later decried the evils of his past and committed his life to Jesus.

So now grace will be put on trial. Mercy will face cross-examination.

Federal prosecutors will pursue the death penalty.

A federal prisoner hasn’t been executed in the U.S. in over a decade. Only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past half-century. This case will raise the most urgent question: Can we, as a nation, do better than killing those who kill in order to show that killing is wrong?

Is there not a better way? After all, we do not rape those who rape, or maim those who maim. Could it be that we are beginning to see that violence is the disease, not the cure?

We know that forgiveness does not mean excusing or pardoning an offense, but forgiveness opens the door to real justice, redemption, and reconciliation. We can protect society from violent criminals without using violence. We can teach that killing is wrong without the death penalty. We can insist, as Wanda Simmons did, that “hate doesn’t have to win.”

Pope Francis has declared that we must abolish the death penalty. And it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”

I cannot think of a better way to honor the victims of the Charleston massacre, and the Jesus they worship, than by insisting on another form of justice for Roof.

We can do better. And we must. In the name of the victims in Charleston, and in the name of the Jesus they worship, let’s not kill Dylann Roof.

(Shane Claiborne is an activist, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” Find him at www.redletterchristians.org.)

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Shane Claiborne


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  • Why can’t the prosecutors show mercy? My guess, the law of unintended consequences. In this case, careers are at stake.

  • Eh, what “unintended consequences” would that be? Not like Roof is going to be set free to kill again. So why would prosecutors’ careers be on the line?

  • How do you have the death penalty in any case, and not apply it to this one? Poor, black, and mentally ill defendants who are mere accomplices to murder get the death penalty — how do you not extend it here, to a young white guy, who, in cold blood, for no reason, walked into a church intending to murder everyone.

    To be clear, I reject the death penalty in all circumstances, but I can’t imagine how you continue a career as a prosecutor in a death penalty state without applying it here. It will do nobody any good — it will cost millions, stop no murder, and if anything, divert our attention from the legacy of racism since we’ll have a scapegoat in place. But in the system we have, I don’t see that the prosecutors have any choice.

  • Makes a career, or failure to get the death penalty makes one look very ineffectual.

  • Ben, the decision to seek the death penalty here was made by the Attorney General. She answers only to the President. While politics are often a factor, and there’s always the possibility of Lynch running for elected office, her career is certainly not on the line.

  • Prosecutors are expected to apply both justice and mercy. Look carefully at Iustitia and you’ll see her carrying not just a balance but a sword. You always have to listen to the families of the victims but they don’t have veto power. If the families wanted the death penalty, which some now do, having retained counsel (see last previous RNS “straight news” article reporting that Justice Dept. was seeking death penalty), would you feel differently?
    Most disturbing in your commentary is that we should seek a lesser penalty “in the name of Jesus.” Is that so?! Perhaps we should listen to those whose “profound faith in Jesus” leads them to hold that the government should allow them to refuse to serve gay couples? Of course not. One’s religious beliefs should not determine government policy.

  • I have long felt conflicted on this issue, but in recent years have moved (if you will) from right to left regarding the DP. My shift is in fact grounded in my faith. The testimony of the victims in this case only reinforce that view. The clincher for me rests in my personal belief in the doctrine of Hell; I am confirmed in the conviction that executing an unrepentant soul will condemn them for eternity, better that they might live to repent and enter into a life of faith in Jesus Christ and be redeemed, but necessarily incarcerated meanwhile.

  • From your position, it would seem appropriate to allow your position to be executed by the Savior rather than by formal society

  • When Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” He was referring to the Roman soldiers on crucifixion detail. The Jewish demagogues who yelled “Crucify Him!” knew that He was guiltless, as did Pontius Pilate. They were not among the “they” who “[knew] not what they [did].”

    Dylann Roof’s actions were a multiple violation — an offense against several people and entities:
    1. The people whose lives he took — each of them individually, and all of them collectively
    2. The families and friends of those people whose lives he took — each family member/friend individually, and all of them collectively
    3. The State of South Carolina — whose laws he violated
    4. God — some of Whose children he killed, other of Whose children he deprived of friends and family members, and Whose laws he violated
    5. Confederate descendants, particularly The Sons of Confederate Veterans — he used the Confederate Battle Flag (the rightful property of the Sons of Confederate Veterans) in conjunction with his offense

    Each individual and entity offended against has a legitimate claim against him. Part of true repentance involves restitution — making things the way they were before the offense was committed.
    In the case of the people who were killed, Dylann Roof obviously cannot restore them to life, so (under the social-contract) the State of South Carolina is entitled to wreak vengeance upon him.
    According to the article, some of the family members and friends of the murdered people have forgiven Dylann Roof and, therefore, settled his debt to them.
    The State of South Carolina is entitled to punish him in accordance with the law he violated. If South Carolina law specifies death as his punishment, that is the business of the people of South Carolina, and nobody else has any standing to say otherwise.
    God will not be mocked — He will deal with Dylann Roof in His own due time, and in His own way.
    Confederate descendants in general, and The Sons of Confederate Veterans in particular, know that Dylann Roof and his actions have no bearing on them — but many ill-informed/uninformed/misinformed people don’t know that, so Dylann Roof owes a huge apology to Confederate descendants, and an explanation to people in general, that he abused Confederate symbols.

  • All I have to say is this. I don’t care what religion says. You don’t want the death penalty, you better not commit a harsh crime. Simple as that. Also, if Dylann Roof was my son I would visit him in jail and slap him multiple times in the face real hard and scream ” You’re going to have explain yourself to the judge what you did and I will not be there for you while your on trial. You’re on your own.” Therefore I would not want to see him again. EVER AGAIN!!!!!!!