The criminal case against Dylann Roof has concluded with a death penalty sentence. Roof represented himself in the case wherein Roof was found guilty of killing multiple parishioners of the Charleston, South Carolina church.
Dylann Roof’s fate was announced today by a jury that sentenced him to the death penalty for killing 9 black church members in a case that shocked the nation. Roof exercised his right to represent himself. He called no witnesses in the sentencing phase of his case. The purpose of calling witnesses on behalf of the defense in the sentencing phase of a trial is to plead for a lesser punishment. In the case where the death penalty is in play, calling witnesses could have helped to spare his life.
Dylann Roof Death Penalty Verdict Review by Attorney Darren Kavinoky
It’s important for people to understand that in death penalty cases – whether they are in state court or federal court – are broken into two separate phases: the guilt phase, where prosecutors have the burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and, assuming criminal prosecutors meet that burden with a unanimous jury verdict of guilt, the penalty phase. During the penalty phase, jurors weigh factors of aggravation, and compare them to factors of mitigation, to determine the appropriate punishment. The only two choices are life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Just like with the guilt phase, the penalty phase requires unanimous agreement by all jurors to impose the ultimate punishment; if even one juror votes for life in prison, the criminal defendant is spared the death penalty.
In this case, the evidence of guilt was so overwhelming – video tape evidence, eyewitness testimony, Roof’s own confession – that this is an outcome that is unlikely to surprise anyone. It’s been widely reported that Roof was willing to plead guilty and spare prosecutors and victim’s alike the expense, risk, and emotional pain of a trial. However, since the prosecution team refused to take death off of the table, the defense had no choice but to proceed to a jury trial. Since Roof called no witnesses at trial and presented no evidence, a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. The only goal of the defense lawyers was to save Roof’s life by seeking a sentence of LWOP (life without the possibility of parole). This goal was apparently not shared by their client, whose only “argument” was a somewhat rambling five-minute speech where he vaguely suggested that jurors could spare him, but that he “wasn’t sure what good that will do anyway.” Jurors apparently agreed that it wouldn’t, and took about three hours to return their verdict of death.
This case illustrates the tension between a defendant’s rights and a lawyer’s obligations. As a practicing criminal defense lawyer for over two decades, I’ve experienced firsthand situations where the accused insisted on taking actions that were directly contrary to the advice of counsel, with devastating results. Just like it may be possible for someone to remove their own appendix doesn’t make it a good idea; likewise, trying to navigate the criminal justice system without legal training is a fool’s errand.
Even though it’s unlikely many will be shedding tears for Roof, given the heinous nature of these hate crimes, and the total lack of remorse (or even understanding) of the carnage he has wrought, there’s another question that we, collectively, need to answer as a society, and that is how we address the “worst of the worst” criminal offenders. It has always seemed like a fundamental misalignment to illustrate how wrong killing is by taking a life (even if it is the life of the criminal defendant), but I have the luxury of pecking on a computer keyboard rather than living the horror Roof imposed on so many. There’s a good reason the robed figure of Lady Justice is blindfolded, and Roof will now have time to contemplate that before she exacts her ultimate punishment.
Death Penalty Public Opinion
According to Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans support the death penalty. Read more about the death penalty and criminal justice in America here.
Timeline of Dylann Roof Crimes
1. The Associated Press. January 10, 2017. Bloomberg. “Dylann Roof Sentenced to Death for Killing 9 Black Church Members.” Retrieved via https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-10/ap-newsalert-dylann-roof-sentenced-to-death-for-killing-9-black-church-members-1st-to-get-death-penalty-for-federal-hate.
2. David Masci. November 14, 2016. Pew Research Center. “5 facts about the death penalty.” Retrieved via
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