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Killing Dylann Roof Won’t Make Us or the Death Penalty Any Less Racist

Equal Justice Under Law
Equal Justice Under Law
Jeffery Robinson,
Executive Director, The Who We Are Project
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November 4, 2016

This piece originally appeared at TIME.

The impact of race on criminal justice is one of the hottest topics of our time. Today’s police-shooting videos have not revealed something new, they have revealed, in a new way, a legacy of racial hatred and violence that is embedded in our nation’s DNA, and more and more Americans are waking up to that fact. So, if we are ready to address the impact of racism in the criminal justice system, what do the remedies look like?

Let me tell you one thing that will not work—sentencing Dylann Roof to death. Jury selection for his federal death penalty case in the Charleston shooting last summer starts on Nov. 7.

When I heard about his slaughter of nine black worshipers in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, I wanted vengeance. I wanted his blood. I grew up as a black child in the South in the 60s and spent the past 34 years as a criminal defense lawyer. I’d seen too many black lives sacrificed to racism, snuffed out by violence or wasted by our criminal justice system. Snapshots of Dylann Roof began to emerge—here wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa, there in sunglasses holding a confederate flag and a gun. My rage grew, and I was sure that he deserved to die. I had long been opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances, yet I wished the death penalty on Dylann Roof.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I understood that, one: his death would not get me what I wanted, and two: his execution wouldn’t help solve the problem of racism in the criminal justice system. It would only serve to reinforce the legacy of racial injustice in our use of the death penalty.

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