Friday, January 6, 2017

Pontificating on Dylann Roof - Is It My Place?

I recently published a blog post calling to spare Dylann Roof from the death penalty. But as I was pushing the button, I heard a little voice in my head. The conversation went something like this.

Aaron Linderman, the Reader: Back in November you wrote a post about boundaries, about not having an opinion on things that aren't really your business. You don't live in South Carolina. Your family wasn't among the victims. You're not on the jury. Is it really your place to be commenting on this?

Aaron Linderman, the Writer: Does seem rather inconsistent, doesn't it?

Reader: Yes, it does.

Writer: Well, I suppose I was trying to articulate a principle, namely, that in cases like Roof's, we - and by that I mean the people of Virginia, my state - should show mercy.

Reader: Perhaps you should have been clearer about that. Perhaps you should have written about some of the people currently on death row in Virginia.

Writer: That's a good idea. But I think the argument would be basically the same: These are unsavory people who have grievously hurt society. But rather than continuing the cycle of violence, we should demonstrate that we live in a humane civilization and spare their lives. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there's no serious case that they pose a threat of escaping and striking again.

Reader: But on that point about the ongoing danger to society: Are you aware that, here in Virginia, six death row inmates escaped from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in 1984? It can happen.

Writer: Indeed, it can. A group of seven who escaped in Texas in 2000 also comes to mind. The state has the responsibility to protect society.  For this reason, I think we should probably keep capital punishment on the books, but with several strict limits: (1) There must be the utmost certainty of the defendant's guilt. These days that probably means DNA evidence. Here in Virginia Earl Washington was wrongly sentenced to death, and there are many other cases as well.  This is utterly unacceptable.  (2) It must be a particularly heinous crime that is being punished. (3) The prosecution must make the case that there is a real probability that the defendant could escape from a maximum security prison and kill again. Speaking of prison security, I'd be quite happy to vote for extra money for maximum security prisons, so that we can have confidence in a life sentence.

Reader: This is all interesting, but aren't we getting away from the initial question? Is it really your place to comment on this case?

Writer: Carnes Lord, in his book The Modern Prince, discusses the "right to be wrong." He argues that our elected leaders - not bureaucrats or investigative journalists or other backseat drivers - have been vested by the people with decision-making authority. A bureaucrat has a duty to describe a situation as best he can and to subsequently carry out his orders as well as possible. He does not get to decide, in a fundamental sense, what to do. Elected leaders are vested with that power. We can criticize their decisions, but we must also recognize that, in giving them the authority to make such decisions, we are also granting the possibility that they will make poor ones.

That concept may be relevant here. A jury of ordinary citizens in South Carolina has been given the authority to decide Dylann Roof's fate. I contend that the best choice would be to grant him mercy - even, and perhaps especially, if he is uninterested in it - and spare his life. But I also recognize that government is best conducted, whenever possible, at the local level. And if the above discussion has demonstrated nothing else, I think it shows that this is a complex question. The South Carolina jury is free to make their decision as they see fit. But I do hope they choose life.

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