Dylan Roof was sentenced to death on January 11 for the murder of 9 parishioners during Bible study at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church. Roof was sentenced for crimes that caused untold suffering to the nine families of those at Mother Emanuel, the surviving victims and the entire community.

Roof seemed so intent on not allowing the jury to hear evidence of mental illness, that he took a step which in fact demonstrated mental illness – he chose to represent himself at the sentencing hearing. This bizarre twist both sealed his own fate with the jury and left the victims’ families and the public with little but disturbing glimpses of how a young man could become so filled with racism and violence.

Over the past 19 months, the surviving victims and their families have been united in their desire to talk about the lives of their loved ones. Over that time, many have spoken publicly about the remarkable lives of faith, service and compassion exhibited by the individuals who were killed. Since then, some of the families have since worked tirelessly to reduce gun violence.

They have, in most cases, shown more interest in talking about the lives of their loved ones than in giving further notoriety to the defendant who cut those lives short.

The victims’ families were never united, though, in support of the death penalty as a final outcome. Each had his or her own story; some spoke – remarkably – of forgiveness; others of not allowing a racist defendant to fill their days with vengeance on top of the pain they already suffered. Many spoke of the need to not simply be “polite” but to work diligently to end racism in everyday life. Those who opposed the death penalty were not asked to express those views to the jury.

The fact that the victims’ families never expressed a united preference for the death penalty is yet another indicator that opinions regarding the death penalty have changed. In the early 80s, death cases were frequently marked by news conferences of screaming victims and repeated cries for execution. This case was distinctly different.

The victims’ families who expressed opposition (either privately or publicly) to the death penalty over the past year and a half are supported by changing views on the death penalty. New death sentences and executions are increasingly rare. In 2016, approximately 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States, which is a 40 year low. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, showing just how infrequent use of the death penalty has become.

Support for the death penalty has rapidly eroded over the last two decades and there is an ever greater realization that we can keep society safe and punish the worst offenders by ensuring that they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

At the end of the day, the decision about whether to impose the death penalty is not about what Dylan Roof deserves, it is about who we are as individuals and the kind of society we want to create.

  • Does the death penalty work to end racism and violence or add to it?
  • Can vengeance and executions ever provide the genuine, ongoing assistance that victims need?
  • Do we want – as individuals and as a society – to kill in order to express our outrage at those who have killed?
  • Do we want to increase the notoriety of the defendant and put the victims through years of additional court proceedings that re-open wounds?

Americans are increasingly rejecting the death penalty as they answer these questions. Life without the possibility of parole is sufficient. The death penalty does not make us safer and violence does not honor the victims. More often, it perpetuates the racism and violence we seek to end. The death penalty is a false solution; it demeans us all.