Dylann Roof 'show trial' exhibits Justice Department at its worst
© Moriah Ratner

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has a fleeting moment in time, before Dylann Roof’s show trial falls into deeper lunacy, to exercise strength, grace, and sound moral judgment on behalf of the United States government – by pulling the plug.

“Ms. Lynch chose to seek the death penalty after a contentious review process that included South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor siding with Mr. Roof’s defense lawyers in their offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence,” writes The New York Times’ Alan Binder.


In the piece published Saturday, Binder observes: “the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials.”  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “show trial” as “a judicial trial held in public with the intention of influencing or satisfying public opinion, rather than ensuring justice.” In a sense, therefore, I’ll concede that U.S. v. Roof is unlike a “show trial.” 

Because, in addition to the many victims’ families (who, as Binder notes, don’t want the death penalty for Roof) the opinion of that segment of society most impacted by Roof’s heinous hate crime – black people – also, overwhelmingly, don’t want Roof killed on their behalf.

Instead, a University of South Carolina poll found “a majority of black South Carolinians – 64.7 percent – said Roof should be sentenced to life without parole if found guilty.” 

In an op-ed asserting “Dylann Roof Shouldn’t Get the Death Penalty,” Christina Swarns, director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote, “[a]lthough this crime was meant to challenge the black community’s right to exist, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund opposes the death penalty for Mr. Roof. Such a sentence would have the perverse effect of justifying the routine, racially discriminatory imposition of the death penalty on black people.”

Poignantly and plaintively, writer Ta-nehisi Coates, demanded: “If the families of Roof’s victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it – then why can’t the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?”      

But, even though Dylann Roof’s federal death penalty trial won’t show black people in this country anything they don’t already know – such as the fact that the United States justice system is uncaring, unfeeling, and downright hostile to their interests – it is still apt to call the proceedings a show trial, because: (1) it will, as South Carolina authorities have promised, all be painstakingly repeated again soon, in state court, in all of its gory, gruesome, bloody detail; (2) it needlessly promises to keep Roof’s name and dastardly deeds in the news for weeks, months, and years to come as his appeals work through the dysfunctional federal death penalty system (appeals that wouldn’t exist, or that would, at a minimum, be dramatically limited in scope if Roof were offered and accepted a plea in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole); and, perhaps most outrageously, (3) this federal trial ginning up in South Carolina, with all its brutal, painful facts, and exorbitant high costs (emotional and economic), is being forced upon the victims, the victims’ families, Roof, the federal court system, and literally all of us, for reasons that have nothing to do with seeking justice for “The Emmanuel Nine.”

The venerable names and honorable lives of the nine victims (Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson) haven’t been the motive behind Lynch’s decision to seek the death penalty.

Instead, as Binder reports, it was “[t]he case’s prominence [that] influenced Ms. Lynch’s decision, according to people with knowledge of the Justice Department’s review, and some federal officials worried that forgoing the death penalty [in Roof’s case] would effectively curb the government’s options in future cases with lower fatality counts and less public scrutiny.”

In May, Daniel Rivero opined for Fusion on “How Loretta Lynch is leaving her mark on civil rights, in record time.” Tellingly, as it concerns Lynch's decision to seek the death penalty for Roof, forcing a trial, Rivero wrote: "Whereas former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines State courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts MORE's tenure was arguably defined by the cases he didn't bring, Lynch has shown that once she got in the driver's seat, it would be a shame not to press the pedal to the metal." Rivero gushed Lynch is “doing justice” and, doing it “damn well.” 

I disagree. 

Lynch’s bureaucratic, autocratic, and histrionic decision to seek the federal death for Dylann Roof, is Exhibit A that she’s not doing justice well – she’s not doing it well at all. (And, should you be craving an Exhibit B, click here).

Aristotle is credited with saying, “the virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” Not a fan of Aristotle? Well, fast-forward the arc of history then, as this truism is equally home in the sage counsel of one of our country’s greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln wrote: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser – in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good [person].” 

And, as will be true for the Justice Department should it make the tough (but just) decision to abandon Roof’s federal prosecution, before it passes the point of no return: “[t]here will still be business enough.” (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “Notes for a Law Lecture” (July 1, 1850), p. 81.)    

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.


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