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Nicolais: Dylann Roof, absolutists and the death penalty

Author: Mario Nicolais - January 20, 2017 - Updated: January 16, 2017

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Mario Nicolais
Mario Nicolais

Dylann Roof is set to die. A federal jury recently sentenced the unapologetic mass-murderer to the death penalty. More than any other individual, his case brings the contrast between political positions on capital punishment to a head. Roof’s sentence draws a clear distinction between pure death penalty opponents and anyone who struggles with the issue. I find myself in the latter camp; I am not an anti-death penalty purist.

My concerns about use of the death penalty span a broad range of arguments. Both empirical data and anecdotal stories demonstrate that the death penalty has been imposed against innocent people. Statistical analysis suggests that the death penalty is not effective as a deterrent; it is only punitive in nature. And then there is the moral question. I am a Christian and believe in the miracle of life. Ending the life of another human being will always conflict with that belief.

But then …

I can’t remember any defendant ever being labeled with the word “evil” as regularly as Roof. It seems insufficient to describe him with words like murderer, killer or criminal. Even more emphatic descriptors like butcher or assassin fall short. Only the word evil — in its most dark and chilling form — seems to come close. Roof represents pure evil on earth. He plotted his attack, took advantage of his victims’ kindness and killed them as they prayed. He remains not only unapologetic and unremorseful, but convinced his cause justified his action.

There can be no clearer instance for the death penalty to be applied. There is no question of innocence — in addition to the wealth of evidence, Roof’s repeated confessions border on bragging. He seems to hope his words will serve as a chilling call to action for like-minded individuals hiding within our society. There are no mitigating factors such as mental or psychological impairments. He even had the mental capacity to represent himself in court.

In this Friday, June 19, 2015 file photo, Najee Washington holds a photo of her grandmother Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in Wednesday's shooting at Emanuel AME Church, by Dylan Roof, as she poses for a portrait outside her home, in Charleston, S.C. "She cared for everyone.During Dylan Roof's sentencing for friends and family members walked up to the witness stand and testified about the nine black church members gunned down during a Bible study. The testimony came during the sentencing phase of Dylann Roof's death penalty trial. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
In this Friday, June 19, 2015 file photo, Najee Washington holds a photo of her grandmother Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in Wednesday’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church, by Dylann Roof, as she poses for a portrait outside her home, in Charleston, S.C. “She cared for everyone. During Dylann Roof’s sentencing for friends and family members walked up to the witness stand and testified about the nine black church members gunned down during a Bible study. The testimony came during the sentencing phase of Dylann Roof’s death penalty trial. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Given those circumstances, opposition to the death penalty for Roof can only find a basis in pure moral conviction. To that end, Roof’s sentence provides anti-death penalty advocates the perfect circumstance to make their case. Because Roof’s case is unblemished by any other mitigating factor, only absolutist voices will call for his life to be spared. Perversely, the worse the crime, the greater the theoretical clarity. He is indefensible individually, so their arguments must focus on the policy in a broader sense.

I respect absolutists for their principled stand. I strongly believe that good public policy must be divorced from individual effects. Consequently, when those defending Roof urge for his life to be spared, it is not for him personally, but for the constitutional moorings protecting every person from cruel and unusual punishment or the religious underpinnings that require every life to be protected. Such arguments are appealing and powerful to me precisely because they are consistent and antithetical to visceral and emotional responses Roof individually arouses in the same people.

Respect, though, is where my position on those who wish to save Roof ends. I cannot agree. Because I do believe Roof represents the embodiment of evil on earth, the very coldest, darkest, and terrifying aspects of human nature. I also see no place for him in this world. It is not an issue of cost, but rather my belief that there is nothing redeemable about his life. Our world will always be slightly worse while he is a part of it.

Ironically, my position may be at odds with some of the parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. I read that they have prayed for him and his forgiveness. I wish we still had nine more people like that with us.

Mario Nicolais

Mario Nicolais

Mario Nicolais is a legal scholar, owner of his own law firm and general counsel for a long-term health care company.