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Renée Graham

Dylann Roof deserves the death penalty

Police lead Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, N.C., June 18, 2015.Jason Miczek/REUTERS

I wantED Dylann Roof sentenced to death.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve been against the death penalty. I know statistics about the racial and class disparities in its application, and how it is less a deterrent and more an act of state-sponsored revenge. In executing criminals, America is on a dwindling list that includes China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea — nations our politicians often criticize for human rights abuses.

Initially, the savagery of Roof’s crimes and his unquestionable guilt in the slaughter of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 did nothing to change my anti-death-penalty stance. I wanted him locked up for the rest of his miserable life, but another murder was not my idea of justice.


That was until passages from Roof’s prison journal, a racist manifesto, were read in court during the ongoing death-penalty phase of his federal murder trial.

“I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed,” Roof wrote. He expressed sympathy for “innocent white children forced to live” in a country he described as “sick.” His only tear, Roof said, was shed in “self-pity for myself. I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place. I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that should never have existed.”

Roof sought to justify his depravity. He acknowledged the innocence of his victims, but essentially blamed them for their own deaths. They were African-American and, in his mind, that was reason enough to end their lives. And I came to believe Roof deserved the same fate. Yesterday, a federal jury agreed.

Perhaps my feelings about capital punishment shifted because Roof’s victims were God-fearing, church-loving folks not unlike members of my own family. Maybe I couldn’t shake the image of these good people welcoming a strange young man into their sanctuary and allowing him to participate in their Bible study for an hour before he stood up and murdered them in their sacred house of worship.


Some believe executing Roof will only make him a martyr to white supremacists, and that may be true. Of course, those inclined to idolize a convicted murderer will do so whether he’s alive or dead. Allowed to live, Roof may become another figure of morbid fascination like Charles Manson has been for more than 40 years. When he was briefly engaged, in 2015, some media outlets covered Manson like a Kardashian. When he was recently taken from prison to a hospital for a medical issue, his name started trending on Twitter, leading to the joke that he was on the short list for Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Alive, Manson has remained current instead of sinking into obscurity. For younger generations, time has dulled the horror of the multiple murders he masterminded.

Often, the most notorious criminals become perverse American idols, receiving thousands of fan letters and marriage proposals. For Roof, prurient adulation would prop up his own sense of rectitude and bolster his image for those who share his caustic views. I respect the fact that some survivors of Roof’s victims, in following their faith, preferred mercy instead of death. Hatred hardened Roof’s heart, distorted his soul, and led him to Mother Emanuel AME Church on a quiet June night nearly two years ago.


Yet right now, all I know is this: A jury in South Carolina has decided the fate of a young murderer who feels no remorse. Now that he has been sentenced to death, neither do I.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.