Mimesis Law
28 May 2020

Dylann Roof’s Unnecessary Trial

December 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Dylann Roof murdered numerous peaceful churchgoers to try to start a race war. Crimes don’t get worse than. People don’t get more evil than that.

As if his crime wasn’t bad enough on its face, little things discussed in a recent New York Times article further drive home his evil and the tragedy of it all as shown by the evidence at trial, things like video of Roof doing target-practice prior to the massacre and security camera footage showing victims being kind to each other and sitting peacefully in their rows before Roof stormed in armed to the teeth.

Crimes of such magnitude usually have layers of horror, and exploring each seems to increase the gravity of it all. Trial is a presentation of all of those awful things. It’s a painfully slow journey through an example of the worst things people can do to each other. Everything seems to linger. The worst stuff, things like the photo of a good man lying dead in his own blood described in the article, seems to linger the most.

The point of trial is to determine guilt. Any other significance the gritty details might have is a byproduct, something not central to the purpose of trial. That doesn’t stop the media, even the New York Times, from trying to make it into something it isn’t:

Each morning they flow into Courtroom Six, escorted by federal officials from a holding room reserved for survivors and families of the victims. The accused, Dylann S. Roof, never turns from the end of the defense table to acknowledge the parents, widows and widowers, children, grandchildren and fellow congregants of the nine African-Americans he has confessed to killing in June 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Roof’s trial is about whether he killed those people. Given that there’s video and he confessed, it’s not one where there’s a real chance he’ll walk. His trial is also about his mental state. The fact he didn’t acknowledge the victims’ families at a proceeding has nothing to do with him being aware of or understanding their pain. It simply doesn’t matter.

The guilt phase of trial is never about forgiveness. No matter how hard the press might try to make more of it, reading too much into what a defendant does at trial likely does little more than to reflect how he’s been advised to act by his lawyer or ordered to act by the marshals or the court.

“Don’t look at the victims.” That’s probably what someone told Roof. Had he kept staring back at them, the story might have described him trying to intimidate them instead of ignoring them. Even if he’d broken down in tears and begged on his knees for their forgiveness, guards likely would’ve just lifted him up and brought him back in line. Maybe the judge would’ve had him removed from the courtroom.

Roof’s behavior at trial doesn’t turn trial into something it isn’t. Things like that almost certainly don’t contain any sort of deep meaning. Moreover, the tragic little things that humanize the victims and intricately illustrate the horror of the crime don’t have an awful lot to do with whether he’s guilty as charged either. What those things do in fact do, however, is accentuate the problems with going through with trial in the first place.

Roof’s arguable slight of the victims shows how upsetting trial can be for victims above and beyond having to relive or be confronted with something awful. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it often is. On the other hand, the details of Roof’s evil acts must be a part of the trial. They’re unavoidable and probably far more traumatic than him not providing any sort of acknowledgement during trial.

What those little things do isn’t infuse trial with some deep message, but rather highlight the senselessness of going through with it in the first place. The prosecutors didn’t choose mercy; instead, they sought a death sentence. They did so at both the state and federal level. They also opposed a bench trial, a far faster and less involved affair. They wouldn’t even take his offer to die slowly in a jail cell, instead pushing ahead with something sure to traumatize the victims, some of whom oppose Roof’s murder by the state in the first place.

On top of all that, trial leaves victims’ loved ones with difficult decisions:

Mr. Thompson has attended Mr. Roof’s trial each day except last Thursday, when he knew prosecutors would show photographs of the blood bath inside the fellowship hall.

“I didn’t want to see the images,” he said in his office at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, where he is vicar. “I didn’t want to have that in my head every day for the rest of my life, and of course I didn’t want to see my wife like that.”

His decision meant he also missed the videos, captured by a church security camera, of some of the final moments of his 59-year-old wife’s life: the six-second clip of her striding purposefully in the side door at 5 p.m., dressed in a black suit and white blouse; then the footage of her slipping out an hour later, warmly hugging two church members. Two hours after that, the camera captured Mr. Roof entering, a black pack around his waist, weighted by a .45-caliber Glock and eight loaded magazines.

“It has been an emotional roller coaster,” Mr. Thompson said. “We have shed tears. There has been fear of the unknown.”

Not going to trial for many seems to be a slight to the deceased, yet few people want to watch after the fact the gruesome end of someone they adored. The draw to attend trial is powerful, as ours is a culture where all sorts of inapplicable meaning is attributed to trial. On top of forcing them to relive something tragic and setting them up for slights from the accused, trial heaps on difficult decisions as well.

Detailing what happened at that church doesn’t provide even a tiny shred of enlightenment regarding the justice system, but it feeds our curiosity. Detailing Roof’s behavior at trial is even more worthless except to the extent we’re just curious. Discussing those things, however, has some value. That value is showing us just a few more reasons why Roof shouldn’t be having a trial at all.

Ed. Note: By tweet at 3:35 p.m. on December 15, 2016, New York Times reporter Alan Binder announced:

Dylann Roof stood, hands at his sides and his face emotionless, as the clerk read “guilty” aloud 33 times. Guilty of all charges.

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