Recently in USA Today, former defense attorney Tanya Coke reflects on the Justice Department’s decision to seek the death penalty for Dylan Roof, the self-avowed white supremacist charged with killing nine parishioners of the Emmanuel Church in Charleston in June 2015. As you might expect, she disagrees with the decision to seek the death penalty in his case, but her reasons may surprise you.
Tanya’s sister, Sandra, was murdered a few years ago. I remember it vividly because Tanya was someone whose name I knew well, who had worked with my colleagues in other states through the years. I remember emails and calls after Sandra’s disappearance and the speculation about what could have happened. Then, Sandra’s body was discovered. Her killer had strangled her so hard that he broke her neck. He threw her body into a ravine. In 2015, he was sentenced to 131 years in prison.
Tanya’s reasons for opposing the death penalty for Dylan Roof are not primarily because of her legal expertise or her work as a public defender. Instead, her concern is the system’s focus on punishment for the killer and not healing for the victims’ families, like hers.
Tanya writes, “the death penalty typically brings the opposite of what survivors of crime most need: accountability, healing and closure. To me, accountability means an acceptance of responsibility for the crime and its impact on others. Healing requires some answers to why our loved ones were hurt, and letting go of some of the rage we’ve felt in losing them. Closure requires an end to a justice process that brings some reasonable assurance that no one else will be harmed at the same hands.”
Again and again, I hear surviving families of murder victims say that they feel trapped in the death penalty system. Decades go by, and still no legal finality.
Tanya continues, “Far from bringing closure, family members of his (Roof’s) victims will have to suffer through not one but two trials, because South Carolina and the federal government are bringing duplicative charges. And because a death sentence by law requires review by an appellate court, the family members of the Charleston victims will have to face years — most likely decades — of appeals and accompanying news stories that will reopen old wounds.”
None of us should ever suffer the loss of a loved one to murder. It is something we don’t like to think about. But some families have to think about it. They are living it every day. Is the death penalty system the best we can do for them? Or as Tanya’s article suggests, does it punish the survivors too?
Read Tanya Coke’s article here.
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