Almost a year ago, after the massacre of nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church known as Mother Emanuel, relatives of the victims did something incredible: They forgave the man accused of murdering their loved ones.
It was an act of Christian compassion so powerful that one presidential candidate drew inspiration from it for months.
“One by one, grieving parents and siblings stood up in court and looked at the young man who had taken so much from them and said, ‘I forgive you,'” Hillary Clinton said just weeks after the massacre. “Their act of mercy was more stunning than his act of cruelty.”
In March of this year, when a Donald Trump rally in Chicago was canceled because of fears of violence between Trump supporters and protesters, Clinton once again invoked the Charleston families.
“The families of those victims came together and melted hearts in the statehouse and the Confederate flag came down,” she said in a written statement. “That should be the model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in our country.”
Clinton featured the Charleston families in ads and referenced them in debates and speeches about gun safety, emphasizing their bravery and compassion.
Last week the Justice Department announced that it would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston gunman. Immediately, a debate over capital punishment took shape. An attorney for the Charleston families told the press that they had “mixed emotions about the death penalty” but would support the decision.
Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, came out against the Justice Department’s decision. A spokesman wrote that Sanders believes that “those who are convicted of the most horrible crimes should be imprisoned for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole.”
The renowned author and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “killing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place. The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing.”
And while public opinion has changed dramatically, especially on the left, it is still Barack Obama’s Justice Department that has sought the death penalty in high-profile cases like those of Roof and of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Given the length of the appeals process, it’s possible neither of these men will be put to death until after the next president has already served one or two terms in office. Still, the next president of the United States will eventually have to give their position on whether or not either of those men deserve to die. Clinton has already indicated that she believes the death penalty may be appropriate in Tsarnaev’s case.