How many witnesses does it take to sentence a confessed murderer? 

The Definition of Overkill

Now that the federal capital murder trial for Dylann Roof is almost over, we have a more complete picture of the man who took the lives of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. Roof had confessed his guilt to authorities prior to a federal jury finding him guilty on all counts brought against him during the first phase of the trial. The second phase of the trial, being held to decide whether or not Roof will be sentenced to life in prison or death by lethal injection, has included emotionally harrowing testimony from the victims’ friends and families. As the prosecution called witness after witness, I found myself asking: “How much is enough?” and then “How much is too much?” These questions are significant as we consider the impact that the whole process has had on those closest to the victims, especially since they will have to go through the whole ordeal once again when Dylann Roof’s capital murder state trial begins likely later this year.

There is a such thing as being extremely thorough in presenting a case, and then there is what the federal prosecutors have been doing in the Roof case. Because Roof admitted guilt during the first phase of the trial and is representing himself in the second, prosecutors have had almost free rein to present any witnesses they wanted throughout the case. And because Roof is acting as his own attorney in the sentencing phase, he hasn’t objected to any evidence offered by the prosecutor. Given that Roof’s guilt has been a foregone conclusion, and that he has already written extensively on both his lack of remorse and reasons for the crime, were all of the prosecution’s witnesses really necessary?

Federal prosecutors decided to go forward with this trial although Roof’s attorneys had already agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Consider that state prosecutors in South Carolina had already indicated that they also planned to try Roof for the same crimes, and would also be seeking the death penalty. Does it really make sense to have two separate jurisdictions seeking the death of the same individual? You can only execute someone once. Or maybe there’s a plan to execute Roof by lethal injection with federal authorities providing the needle for one arm and the state providing the needle for the other. Given the considerable emotional toll multiple trials will take on the victims’ families, it’s a legitimate question to ask whether a federal trial was really necessary since federal authorities rarely execute and a life sentence could have been easily obtained.

In one of the few statements he was permitted to make, Roof’s standby attorney commented that the sentencing testimony was more like a memorial service than a trial proceeding. This comment had significant merit. Although prosecutors originally sought to present 38 witnesses during the sentencing phase, even the federal judge finally decided that this was a bit too much. In that sense, the redundancy of testimony regarding the goodness of the people shot and the emotional void left by their deaths does little to justify death as a more suitable punishment for their killer. Whether or not Dylann Roof deserves to die for his crimes should be decided on his state of mind at the time he conducted the killings, his lack of remorse after committing the murders, and the cold blooded premeditation that went into his planning not the goodness of his victims. To have witness after witness testify about how great the victims were and how much they will be missed, as meaningful as those sentiments are, is akin to beating a dead horse.

If there is a plus side to the federal prosecutors’ fastidious detail in presenting every aspect of their case, it’s that state prosecutors should have a reliable blueprint for their trial to come. Not only will they know what prospective witnesses in their case they should use, but just as importantly which witnesses can be skipped altogether. Perhaps they can learn from the maxim that sometimes less is more, particularly when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Then again, considering the same state prosecutors only cross-examined Michael Slager for 15 minutes during his eventual mistrial a few weeks earlier, maybe they shouldn’t take that maxim too far.



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