Dylann Roof gets death penalty, but the church where he killed people opposes it

Many religious Americans oppose capital punishment.

CREDIT: AP/Ben Earp, File
CREDIT: AP/Ben Earp, File

Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered 9 African American worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, was condemned to death on Tuesday—even though the church where he conducted the massacre reportedly opposes capital punishment.

Roof was already found guilty last month on 33 counts for committing a horrific attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in downtown Charleston, but Tuesday the jury deliberated for more than three hours before emerging with a unanimous verdict to decide his fate.

He is the first person to be condemned to death on federal hate crime charges in what was a largely clear-cut case: The 22-year old calmly confessed to the killings shortly after being apprehended by the FBI, and showed no remorse for his actions—which involved sitting in a Bible study for several minutes before going on a rampage that included killing church pastor Clementa C. Pinckney—ahead of the conviction.

Roof reportedly became radicalized by reading white supremacist websites, and made his racist motivations clear during the assault.

“You blacks are killing white people on the streets everyday and raping white women everyday,” Roof said during the shooting, according to a journal entry he wrote after his arrest.

But while Roof’s conviction may bring comfort to some, his execution likely will not be celebrated by many members of the church where he committed the massacre. The current pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reportedly told New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb that the AME denomination does not support the death penalty, and several of the victims’ family members—some of whom publicly forgave Roof shortly after the shooting—recently told the New York Times that they prefer he spend life in prison. In addition, a University of South Carolina survey found that a strong majority of black Charlestonians did not want Rood put to death.

The compassionate mindset highlights deep ambivalence about the death penalty among religious Americans. The United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and Reform and Conservative Jews have all publicly opposed death penalty, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns its use in most instances. African American and Hispanic Protestants are especially opposed to killing as a form of punishment: according to a 2015 PRRI survey, 68 percent of both groups—the highest of any major religious subset—prefer life in prison.

Meanwhile, a 2015 Pew survey found that support for capital punishment has dropped significantly among several American religious groups, and a faith-based effort to combat its use is on the rise.