You only die once. So why are both federal and state prosecutors separately trying to kill the 22-year-old man who, in July 2015 went on a racist rampage killing nine people in a church in Charleston? Jurors in federal court in the southern city made one of the most important and difficult decisions of their lives. At the end of the penalty phase in the man’s trial (DSR) the jury chose execution over a “life without parole” sentence.
Mass murder rampages are always horrific. This one differs from other rampages where victims are chosen even more randomly. The victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage, for example, only had in common that they were affiliated in some way with the school, where first grade children, teachers and school administrators were all killed. In that tragedy, the shooter’s motives were never realized, and there’s no requirement that it is. The South Carolina rampager had a motive. He wanted to punish African Americans for perceived injustices he imagined they perpetrated upon whites. A grotesque feature of his murderous scheme is that he sat and prayed in the African Methodist Episcopal Church with his victims just before he killed them.
DSR was sentenced to death in federal court. Federal murder cases used to be rare. According the Death Penalty Information Center in the nearly 30 years since 1988 only 3 federal defendants have been executed.Today there are 62 inmates now on federal death row, including the man convicted in the 2013 Boston marathon massacre.
Federal capital murder trials were unusual because homicide in the U.S. legal system is typically a state or local crime; investigated by state or local police and prosecuted by state or local prosecutors. Not all states allow for the death penalty, but South Carolina is one of the 31 states that does. In fact, South Carolina state officials have also indicted the man on 9 murder counts. The state capital murder trial was originally scheduled to start right after the federal trial but was postponed by the trial judge.
Putting an offender on trial twice for the same offense may look like to be a violation of the “double jeopardy” clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but it’s not. That’s because the U.S. and South Carolina are separate legal entities and the “dual sovereignty” doctrine allows prosecutions for the same offense by both governments. The fact that both can put DSR on trial doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Victims will go through the traumatic experience of witnessing the trial, some testifying a second time. Trials, particularly capital trials, with a very lengthy appellate process, are a considerable expense for taxpayers to endure even once.
Some penalties can co-exist after separate federal and state trials. A prison sentence for years, fines or restitution orders can all co-exist. The most likely sentences in these two cases, though, are either life without parole, or death and both, obviously, can only be carried out once.
Why did the U.S. Justice Department pursue DSR? In charging him Attorney General Loretta Lynch pointed to the racial hostility nature of the massacre and the existence of federal hate and racial bias crimes as a rationale for moving forward. The explanation for duplicate capital murder trials is unsatisfactory. It’s true that charging bias and hate crimes serve a cathartic purpose for a badly traumatized African American community, and go to the heart of the offenses. How important is it for the crimes charged to expose the motivations of the mass murderer? When the evidence is put on, a South Carolina state murder trial will expose the same motivations the federal trial did. Isn’t it enough for DSR to be only once charged with 9 counts of murder, followed by one just sentence? Perhaps the Justice Department and the President hedged their bets, not willing to take any chances of a failed state prosecution and the effect it would have on the nation.
Most rampagers are suicidal and most rampages end with the rampager either taking their own life or being gunned down by police. This rampager is no different. He fully expected to be confronted by police either inside or outside the Church. The federal sentencing hearing was a spectacle. DSR represented himself and had a megaphone to broadcast his bigotry. Why give him the megaphone a second time? The federal case did not turn out well for him. If it’s death he wants, it’s likely that’s what he’ll get. Regardless of the outcome of both trials one thing is certain. He will only die once and no number of trials will restore the lives of his innocent victims.
(Note: DSR is Dylann S. Roof. I intentionally minimize his exposure following, where possible, a protocol advocated by NO Notoriety, a group of survivors who believe infamy is one of the goals of rampage murderers. Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post and Joe Raedle via Getty Images)