Our Opinion: Roof, Tsarnaev have regrettable parallels

While the worst of criminals are still occasionally given the death penalty, deaths are actually becoming increasingly less common. The argument for pursuing the death penalty is undermined as a result.

Today in South Carolina, federal prosecutors will begin trying to persuade jurors that 22-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who gunned down nine parishioners in Charleston's Mother Emanuel church, should receive the death sentence. Mr. Roof has been convicted of federal hate crimes for an act he has acknowledged was done in the hope of inciting a race war.

The killings on June 17, 2015 were horrific and prosecutors did a convincing job of showing they were pre-meditated. Mr. Roof fired his lawyers, apparently because they wanted to present an insanity defense and their client insists he is of sound mind and did what needed to be done. "I had to do it because somebody had to do something," he said in his confession. "Black people are killing white people every day on the street and they are raping white women. What I did is so minuscule to what they're doing to white people every day all the time."

Mr. Roof is clearly a racist and an acknowledged killer. The U.S. Justice Department's decision to seek the death penalty was opposed, however, by then-U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles on the the grounds that pursuing or not pursuing the death penalty should be a local and state decision. This recalls the argument by Massachusetts legal officials that the Justice Department overstepped its authority in pursuing the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2015. Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, but federal law superseded it. He was given a death sentence and remains jailed.

Mr. Tsarnaev was the most recent of 59 federal inmates sentenced to death, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics. But no criminal sentenced to death under federal statutes has been killed since 2003. DNA evidence that rescued innocent people from death row and the disproportionate number of African-Americans given death sentences have combined to slow executions in all but a few unenlightened states.

The U.S. Justice Department may believe it must make a statement in high profile incidents like those in Charlestown and Boston, but politics should not be a factor. Mr. Roof merits a life sentenced without possibility of parole, which will deprive him of the opportunity to become a martyr in the unlikely event that he is executed. The same should have applied to Mr. Tsarnaev. The death penalty is fading into history, at the federal level and in many states, and the Justice Department shouldn't be keeping it alive.


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