It is fitting, if late, that South Carolina’s political leaders seem ready to evict the Confederate flag from the grounds of their state Capitol in response to the vile shooting that left nine African-Americans dead in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church last week. In a Monday news conference while flanked by Democrats and fellow Republicans, Gov. Nikki Haley noted that many in the Palmetto State see the Confederate flag as a tribute to their Southern roots but said, “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” She urged state lawmakers to act next week.
Haley is also right about another way to demonstrate her state’s outrage. She told NBC’s Today show, “We will absolutely… want him to have the death penalty.”
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., opposes the death penalty. Still, he noted, “If you are going to have a death penalty, then certainly this case would merit it.”
This slaughter was an act of racial terrorism — meant to deprive defenseless churchgoers of their precious lives while instilling fear and dread among all black Americans. The accused killer — I shall not reward his delusions of grandeur by repeating his name — wanted to start a race war. He wrote: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
The standard arguments against the death penalty do not apply here. The shooter told the world what he wanted to do. Though every defendant deserves the presumption of innocence in a courtroom, we on the outside are under no obligation to pretend the defendant did not signal his malicious intent. This case is no whodunit.
With 44 inmates on death row, South Carolina is one of 31 states with capital punishment. The state most recently executed an inmate in 2011. Since then, the state’s supply of one of the three drugs used in lethal injections expired. South Carolina effectively has been unable to conduct executions and will have to find new drugs or other methods in order to resume executions. (Electrocutions are allowed in South Carolina if the condemned chooses that method — but why would anyone choose that now that the state is out of the lethal drugs?) Perhaps this case will prompt state officials to do what they must to enforce the law.
On Friday, Charleston County prosecutor Scarlett Wilson said she had not decided whether she will pursue the death penalty for these nine counts of murder; she wants to hear from victims’ families. “They deserve to know the facts first,” quoth Wilson. “They deserve to be involved in any conversations regarding the death penalty.”
At a bond hearing, several members of the victims’ families told the shooter they forgave him — so expect advocates to suggest the victims’ families oppose executing the killer and thus capital punishment should be off the table. I respect the families’ graceful resolve not to fuel the race war this young thug wanted. But forgiveness doesn’t mean that a killer shouldn’t go to prison, so it should not spare him from the death penalty.
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