Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
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Dylann Roof, addressing court, offers no apology for Charleston massacre

I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did: Dylann Roof
'I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did': Dylann Roof
Sometime in the six weeks after he killed nine Bible study worshippers at this city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Dylann S. Roof wrote in a journal that he had “not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” On Wednesday morning, standing before the jurors who will decide whether he should be put to death, Roof again offered no apology, no explanation and no remorse for the horrific massacre.

In a strikingly brief opening statement in the penalty phase of his trial in U.S. District Court, where he is representing himself, Roof repeatedly assured jurors that he was not mentally ill, and left it at that. “There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” he said, before striding back to the defense table, taking a deep breath.

By then, Courtroom No. 6 had already been jarred by a reading of two pages from Roof’s journal, a white supremacist manifesto written in Charleston County’s jail.

“I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” Roof wrote in the journal, which officials seized in August 2015 and a prosecutor introduced during his opening statement. “I am not sorry.”

Roof, who was then 21, also wrote: “I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick country and I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower race. I have shed a tear of 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.”

As he began to lay out the government’s case for a death sentence, the prosecutor who read from the journal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan S. Williams, told the jury of 10 women and two men that Roof’s killing spree had been a premeditated act that had devastated the families of his victims.

“The defendant didn’t stop after shooting one person or two or four or five; he killed nine people,” Williams said, a few moments before he flatly declared: “The death penalty is justified.”

Later, aided by a slideshow of pictures, he described each of the victims and their lives.

The presentations, especially Roof’s comments and the introduction of the journal, struck a startling beginning to the trial’s sentencing phase, which is expected to run into next week. On Dec. 15, after a weeklong first phase, the jury found him guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes, obstruction of religion resulting in death and firearms charges. Eighteen counts require the jury to decide whether to sentence Roof, now 22, to either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. A death sentence requires unanimity.

Although many people in the courtroom had already heard Roof’s raspy, Southern-inflected monotone during the guilt phase of his trial, when prosecutors played a video recording of his confession, his opening statement on Wednesday was the first time he had directly addressed jurors. He chose to allow his court-appointed legal team to represent him during the guilt phase, but sidelined them to represent himself during the penalty phase in order to prevent them from introducing any mitigating evidence regarding his family background of mental capacity.

His decision to spend only three minutes addressing the jury, and to devote the time to insisting that he was not impaired, seemed to solidify the impression of a man unwilling to rely upon what experts believe is his best opportunity to avoid execution: a mental health defense.

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Source: The New York Times (via The Globe and Mail), Kevin Sack, Alan Blinder, January 4, 2017

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