fb-pixel Skip to main content
Michael A. Cohen

The death penalty and Dylann Roof

Sometime in the next few days, Dylann Roof, the young man responsible for the death of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., will likely be sentenced to die.

Roof, who has already been convicted and is defending himself in the penalty phase of his trial, has presented no witnesses and has firmly rejected any defense on the grounds of psychiatric illness. Considering the premeditated and extraordinarily heinous nature of Roof’s crime, as well as his utter lack of remorse, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome than a death sentence.

As the Rev. Joseph Darby, an elder at the AME Church and an opponent of the death penalty, put it, “If there was ever justification for killing anybody, this is the case.”


And yet, in key respects, there is perhaps no better example of the inherent flaws in the death penalty — and the problematic way that the criminal justice system deals with mental illness — than this case.

Even though I’m an opponent of the death penalty, I found it difficult — at least initially — to object to its application in this case. But over the course of Roof’s trial, it’s become increasingly apparent that his fixation on black-on-white crime, which he believes justified his actions, is the product of what Dr. Xavier Amador, a forensic psychologist who has worked on numerous capital cases involving mentally ill defendants (but not on this case), calls a “broken brain.”

According to Amador, it’s symptomatic of an individual suffering from chronic mental illness:, most likely schizophrenia. He has delusions. He’s unable to express emotions. His affect is flat. He has few friends, and in the year and half before the massacre he largely isolated himself in his bedroom. And like many people who suffer from this illness, he developed symptoms in his late teens and early 20s.


As for his racist beliefs, their development in Roof is striking. In a manifesto explaining his racial views, Roof says he wasn’t raised in “a racist home of environment,” but rather became “truly awakened” on racial issues during the Trayvon Martin case.

He reported looking up Martin on Wikipedia and being prompted “to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google.” According to Roof, “I have never been the same since that day.” This is a classic sign of delusional thinking, informed by mental illness says Amador, in which one article or one website suddenly explains the world to him.

From that perspective, Roof’s racist beliefs appear to be more a product of his “broken brain” than any kind of well-established ideology.

Yet Roof does not “look crazy.” There are no voices in his head telling him what to do. He’s not disheveled or mumbling nonsensically. He’s articulate and able to compose himself at trial. He doesn’t fit the model that we have of mental illness.

Beyond that, Roof’s racism seems familiar. Nothing about him or his beliefs necessarily seems delusional.

But as Amador said to me, “His broken brain has produced a delusional belief that blacks and a handful of races are a mortal danger to whites, and so he’s called a racist. But if his same illness produced a delusional belief that all blacks had been replaced by aliens and he was killing aliens not human beings” there wouldn’t be much issue about his mental competency.


This speaks to a much larger failing of the criminal justice system. Quite simply, judges and lawyers don’t fully appreciate the nature of mental illness, even at the same time that great strides have been made in understanding these illnesses within the public health community. Roof might understand the difference between right and wrong, and may have planned out his crime (two elements that in the legal system often undercut the use of a mental health defense as mitigation) but that doesn’t mean his thought process is indicative of a sound mind.

None of this means that Roof should walk free or minimizes the ghastly nature of what he did. But sentencing a young man to death, even though his actions are probably driven by forces that neither he nor those judging him fully understand or appreciate seems like the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. Allowing him to defend himself in court, literally with his life on the line, may even be worse. And in a country where mental illness is so little understood; and where cultural assumptions about the mentally ill often substitute for scientific knowledge, it’s hard to find any justification for the continued use of the death penalty. Rather than serve as the poster child for why the death penalty is needed, the Roof case might be the best possible example of why the death penalty should be ended in America.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.