On June 17th, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people, all of whom were attending an evening prayer meeting at the time, were shot and killed while a tenth survived. Among those killed was the senior pastor of the church and state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The morning after, police officials arrested 21-year old Dylann Roof as the primary suspect in this shooting. Dylann Roof attended the prayer meeting the night before and opened fire after standing up and saying he was there to “shoot black people”. He stated African-Americans had “raped [white] women and are taking over the country”. In his confession at the police station, Roof stated he wanted to start a “race war”.
Today, Roof faces nine murder charges and three attempted murder charges for the events of that night in June. If convicted, the death penalty is certainly on the table as South Carolina still offers it as punishment for murder. In addition, federal authorities are investigating the crime to determine whether the federal government will prosecute Roof for a hate crime.
The reasoning behind prosecuting Dylann Roof for a hate crime reaches far beyond this killing. Since the events of the Charleston Church Shooting, it has been discovered that this young man was indeed a racist and a white supremacist. Pictures have surfaced on line of Roof wearing a jacket that had the apartheid South Africa flag embroidered on it, as well as others where he is seen burning the American flag and proudly waving the Confederate flag instead. Roof had a website that laid out why he decided to terrorize this church specifically and what fueled his anger toward the Black community. He had written a racist manifesto that explained his path toward hatred and even talked to his friends about doing “something crazy” after of six months of careful planning. None of the people around him had ever taken him seriously, until now.
Prosecutors have the discretion to charge whatever crimes fit the defendant at hand, given the evidence provided. This means the prosecutor is the one in most cases to wield the initial power. Prosecutorial discretion is more than just what it appears to be on its face; the types of crimes with which prosecutors charge defendants can potentially send a message to prosecutors in future cases. In this case, this means that if Dylann Roof is only charged with nine murders and three attempted murders, future prosecutors will see this as a typical murder case. However, if he is charged with a hate crime, a message would be sent that this specific type of murder stands out and should be treated differently. This could also potentially deter others from committing violent acts of racism and prejudice.
There are some who argue charging Dylann Roof federally for a hate crime is too excessive. Federal charges are sentenced with more severity than state charges, and there are differing detention centers for those convicted. Unlike in other recent race-related cases, most of the evidence is in place; Roof has even confessed to the crime and will almost certainly be convicted for his state charges. However, since South Carolina does not have a specific law targeting hate crimes, that particular charge is not an option at the state level. Therefore, any hate crime charge would have to be brought at a federal level.
Supporters of a federal charge for a hate crime say that Roof’s actions call for something beyond a conviction for a series of murders. This crime was racially motivated, and the evidence of this is staggering. The purpose for having hate crimes on the books is not just to punish criminals who may, for whatever reason, evade harsher punishment on the state level, but to actively criminalize behavior that is rooted in hatred for another’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other type of status. The American criminal justice system does not punish a person’s ideologies or political leanings. But, left unchecked, such ideologies coupled with heinous acts viewed through the lens of historical racial tension in this country, could be very dangerous and detrimental to general safety. Finding Dylann Roof guilty of a hate crime is not a futile endeavor; doing so could help to inform future prosecutorial discretion in charging these types of crimes. It would also send a message that Americans view crime against others on the basis of racial prejudice to be a capital offense.
|By Calvin Walker|
CLP Senior Staffer