Dylann's Killers Take Aim

I can’t say I am surprised by Dylann Roof’s decision to conduct his own defense. What, really, has he to lose? 

Mr. Roof is standing trial in a South Carolina federal court, accused of 33 crimes — ranging from murder to obstruction of religion to firearms charges and to hate crimes — all arising from his shooting spree in a Charleston African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Mr. Roof, 22, is white; the nine people he shot to death were black. He hoped his shootings would start a race war.

If convicted, after a trial by jury, he faces the death penalty.

From afar, it appears as if the case is a slam dunk for federal prosecutors. Mr. Roof took pains to leave one churchgoer alive as he mowed down the other attendees at a prayer meeting. He wanted a witness, you see.

The federal government is very selective in choosing the cases in which to seek death. Local prosecutors are first required to screen a case, and to offer counsel for the accused a chance to come in for an informal chat about why the defendant ought to be spared death.

Once the local panel makes a decision, another committee of prosecutors, this time in Washington, D.C., conducts an independent review and makes a recommendation to the attorney general. The attorney general is required to approve of every death penalty prosecution.

So a bevy of federal prosecutors have decided that Dylann must die. How determined are they to see this young man dead?

Very much so.

Not long ago, Mr. Roof offered to plead guilty to each and every crime charged, so long as the government would not seek his execution. No deal, the government said.


The charges against Mr. Roof are steeped in hatred, and they are vile. Mr. Roof is a weak reed, a canary in the mine shaft, his hatred an obvious and extreme form of our festering racial wounds.

Killing Mr. Roof is not justice. What species of bloodthirsty self-righteousness inspires the prosecution? Do we get a national “safe space” by beholding the corpse of this man-child?

And what of Mr. Roof? What was his state of mind at the time of the shooting? Was this evil? Was he ill? Does the distinction between evil and illness even make sense here?

Late last month, the federal judge presiding over Mr. Roof’s case concluded Mr. Roof was competent to stand trial. Competency is not the same as sanity.

To be competent, a person must be capable of understanding the nature of the charges against him and of assisting in his own defense. I’ve read competency evaluations that set the bar so low as to be laughable. If a person understands that his lawyer’s job is to protect him and knows what charges he faces, that’s a significant step on the way to being found competent. 

A defendant will be found competent even if his ideas about how to defend himself are bizarre. Many are the stories criminal defense lawyers tell about clients out of step with reality but nonetheless found to be competent.

Sanity is more nuanced: Did a person appreciate the unlawfulness of his conduct; could he control himself?

The fact is that the law is all about the law of averages, about commonly held values, about what is “reasonable” to most people most of the time. Outliers, people who are different, stand out because they march to different drummers. An unreasonable person can be competent, the law holds. You can be competent but insane.

After the judge declared Mr. Roof competent to stand trial, Roof fired his lawyers and insisted that he be permitted the right to represent himself. The United States Constitution guarantees us that right, so long as we are competent and don’t disrupt the proceedings.

Lawyers like to say that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. I think this true in almost every case, but not in Mr. Roof’s case. Given the evidence the government has amassed against him, a conviction is inevitable; given the government’s blood lust, the only real fight is over whether he will die behind bars or be poisoned to death by anonymous executioners.

What chance has a 22-year-old with a GED against a team of skilled legal assassins? None.

What chance had his team of top-grade defenders of saving his life? No better, I suspect, than the odds Mr. Tsarnaev had in Boston.

Mr. Roof now gets the chance to address the jury without having to be cross-examined. If he truly seeks to live, he won’t sit by as government lawyers demonize him one witness at a time. He’ll stand before the jury, composing himself as best he can, serving as Exhibit A in the only defense that can work: “I am not a monster; I am a more extreme version of the hatred that defines us.”

A jury detoxifying after this year’s bitter presidential race, and wary of the hatred and intolerance abroad in the land, just might spare him in the name of hope for a better future. Don’t forget that in the wake of the shootings, several families of Mr. Roof’s victims announced they were prepared to forgive.

Suppose Mr. Roof doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. Suppose he wants a pulpit from which to preach hate. Then he’ll have that, as well. He can engineer his own martyrdom.

The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived of the state as our only protection from anarchy and violence. Citizens, he argued, had a duty to submit to the state in all things save one: When the state sought to kill its own, the person targeted to die retained the right to fight back, to resist.

Candidly, I am rooting for Mr. Roof in this one, insofar as the penalty phase goes. He offered a guilty plea; the government said no. Now he stands alone, asking each of us to take stock not just of his hatred, but of our own.


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