A measure of sanity has finally prevailed in the case of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof. After almost two years of stonewalling, prosecutors in South Carolina reached a plea deal in which Roof will plead guilty and spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Roof had wanted to plead guilty as early as the summer of 2015. He had already confessed that he was the man who shot ten people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, killing nine of them, in hopes of starting a race war. However, both federal and state prosecutors had been unwilling to take the death penalty off the table. The local solicitor, or district attorney, Scarlett Wilson, had originally announced in September 2015 that she intended to seek the death penalty, and federal prosecutors followed suit in May 2016.
Roof was convicted on federal hate crimes and weapons charges in December, and was sentenced to death in January. And yet, this could have been avoided had federal prosecutors been willing to accept his guilty plea. However, they were not willing to drop the death penalty–a deal that no defense attorney worth his salt could accept. By refusing to let Roof plead guilty in return for life in prison, federal prosecutors effectively said that it is possible to commit a crime so heinous that you effectively forfeit the right to a plea bargain.
It looked like we were going to see more of the same this spring, when Roof was due to face state charges of murder and attempted murder. As late as September 2015, Roof had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. However, Wilson had refused to back down from her announcement in September 2015.
“This was the ultimate crime. And justice from our state demands the ultimate punishment.”
However, on Friday, Wilson wrote a letter to Roof’s victims saying that she had agreed to take the death penalty off the table. She wrote that from the very beginning, she wanted “an insurance policy” for any sentence imposed at the federal level. Ultimately, she concluded that a life sentence at the state level met that standard. Under the deal, Roof will formally plead guilty to all state charges against him on April 10 in return for accepting a sentence of life without parole.
Wilson told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that accepting a guilty plea from Roof will ease the process of moving him to federal custody. Soon after his guilty plea in state court, Roof will be handed over to the federal Bureau of Prisons. For now, his ultimate destination will be the federal prison in Terre Haute, home to federal death row. Further underlining her view that this plea is an insurance policy, Wilson told WCBD-TV in Charleston that this deal ensures that “if something very, very, very unlikely were to happen at the federal level,” Roof will still die in prison.
Sharon Risher, who lost her mother in the shooting, said that she was relieved when Wilson called her with the news. Not only was she “glad we don’t have to endure another trial,” but she is pleased that Roof “won’t ever be able to step outside again.”
It’s about time that at least one set of prosecutors came down from the soapbox in this case. There is no defensible reason why Roof should have been denied a chance to plead guilty. By suggesting that certain crimes are too heinous to allow a plea bargain that removes the death penalty as an option, prosecutors are effectively saying that certain people are below the law.
There are some who think that we shouldn’t effectively send taxpayers the bill for Roof’s room and board for the rest of his life. Frankly, that option isn’t very palatable. But it’s a lot better than punishing one act of barbarism with another. It’s far better to make those who commit such heinous crimes rot in prison for the rest of their lives, and then go before the Supreme Judge for whatever further punishment he may deserve.
(featured image: screenshot courtesy NBC News)