I was sitting at my desk when I saw the headline flash across the computer screen: “Verdict in Charleston Church Case.” A rush of heat ran through my body as I didn’t know what to expect. A White man in South Carolina shooting and killing nine Black members of the church should be an open and shut case. However, we know Black death at the hands of our oppressors doesn’t always end in a guilty verdict.
After a few minutes, I clicked the link to see that Dylann Roof had been sentenced to death by a federal jury. A moment of relief came over me, followed by a fight with my conscience. For as much as I hate Roof, I cannot agree with the state having the power to execute people, especially when this same system disproportionately condemns Black and Brown bodies to death at much higher raters than their White counterparts.
Let me be clear when I say that at times I wanted to see Roof dead, but I know that keeping the institution that controls his death in place has more severe implications for those who share my melanin. So instead of state-sanctioned death, I want Roof to be placed under the jail. I want him to be placed in a room with himself, by himself, where he can only stare at four cement walls with no windows and the bare minimum of food needed to sustain his miserable life. However, I want him to have a MISERABLE. FULL. ENTIRE. LIFE.
The power of whether a person lives or dies to be controlled by the state is far more dangerous than Roof could ever be, and his execution would serve no purpose in changing a system of oppression that affects the most marginalized–poor and Black and Brown bodies.
American policing institutions have historically shown a bias in the treatment of people based on race and ethnicity, and the application of the death penalty follows suit. These institutions, many of which started on the foundations of policing enslaved Black folks, have changed their mottos but not the severity of application of the law against minorities in comparison to Whites. The facts don’t lie. The race of the defendant versus the race of the victim still plays a large role in the determination of who lives and who dies in the eyes of most juries.
Although smaller in demographics and population size, people of color have accounted for a total of 43 percent of all executions, and currently account for 56 percent of all inmates sitting on Death Row. A deeper look at the facts show, that although White victims account for 50 percent of murders nationwide, they make up nearly 80 percent of the victims in capital punishment cases. Since 1976, the statistics of interracial violence that ended in execution has shown an even more drastic fate for Black defendants. Thirty-one White perpetrators have been executed for killing Black victims, compared to 297 Black defendants executed for killing White victims. This bias comes as no surprise as we have watched White police officers skirt past indictments and convictions at the expense of another dead Black person time and time again. On top of the racial implications that make the death penalty a poor choice in punishment, there are several other reasons why the death penalty serves no purpose outside of the “eye for an eye” mentality, a hollow emotional euphoria for all those affected by the death of the victims.
We play a very dangerous game of Russian roulette when we decide who does and doesn’t have the right to life. Executions in this country may feel like justice, but they certainly aren’t cheap to taxpayers. It costs roughly two to three times more to execute someone verses sentencing them to lifetime imprisonment. Moreover, mistakes can happen at the trial level in the case of the wrongfully convicted, or during the execution. Lethal injection, the federal government’s primary method of execution, by far has the highest rate for botched executions with nearly 7.12 percent being administered incorrectly.
I understand how it may be hard to reconcile our need for justice with the pain a murderer may suffer; however, humanity and morality must outweigh emotions. Furthermore, there is unfortunately a chance that the person going through execution is actually innocent, as several have been found to be after being sentenced to death. One must also take into account, that the death penalty does nothing to reduce violent interactions of others. It has done nothing to “serve as an example” of the worst case scenario with the hopes of reducing violence across the board, nor has it curbed violent crime.
Though difficult, systems of oppression require full dismantling and can’t be subject to a case-by-case scenario based on the victim. We as Black folks can’t celebrate in the death sentence of a White man, while being critical of the same set of circumstances that we know will affect our own.
I am happy Roof will be punished for his heinous actions, which ended nine lives and affected scores more, but we must not let our emotions outweigh our logic or our focus on dismantling the systems that disproportionately affects us.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.