Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof's Many Sentences Highlight U.S. Hate Crime Law's Dangerous Redundancy

There is no reason to think federal intervention was needed to achieve justice in this case.

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This week Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, two years ago, received nine life sentences under a plea agreement in state court. That penalty was in addition to the 18 death sentences Roof received in January following a federal trial that ended in December. Rather than seek additional death sentences, Scarlett Wilson, the chief prosecutor for Charleston County, decided to accept Roof's guilty plea and spare the families of his victims the emotional strain of another trial.

These dual outcomes underline how utterly superfluous the federal hate crime statute was in this case, which supposedly illustrated the need for such a law. If the Justice Department had not beaten her to the punch, Wilson would have sought the death penalty for Roof, so the federal prosecution was not even the difference between execution and life in prison. Regardless of your views on the death penalty, there is no reason to think federal intervention was necessary to achieve justice for the victims of Roof's mass murder.

In addition to wasting resources on redundant prosecutions, the federal hate crime law threatens three important principles:

The federal government's powers are limited to those granted by the Constitution. The prosecution of murder and other violent offenses is traditionally a state function, and the constitutional basis for the federal hate crime law is dubious at best. The provision under which Roof was convicted, which applies to cases where the victim was chosen because of his "actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin," is supposedly authorized by the 13th Amendment.

If you do not understand how the constitutional ban on slavery applies to someone who punches an African American or a Latino while shouting a racial epithet, or to someone who specializes in mugging Jews because he figures they have a lot of money, you are not alone. As the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website) noted in a 2013 Supreme Court brief, the hate crime statute "does not prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude"; "nor is it a prophylactic measure intended to assist in preventing the return of slavery or involuntary servitude."

The constitutional rationale for another provision of the federal hate crime law, covering crimes in which the victims were selected because of their "gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability," is even less plausible. All it takes to make a federal case out of such crimes is a weapon "that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce," such as a knife or a baseball bat.

After someone is acquitted, the government should not be able to try him again for the same crime. In the highly unlikely event that Roof had been found not guilty in federal court, he could have been tried again in state court, or vice versa. Although such an outcome is hard to imagine in this case, it does happen. In 2003, for instance, a federal jury convicted Lemrick Nelson, who had been acquitted in state court of murdering Yankel Rosenbaum during a 1991 riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights by stabbing him because he was Jewish. Thanks to the "dual sovereignty" doctrine, such serial prosecutions do not officially count as double jeopardy, but they amount to the same thing.

People should not be punished for their beliefs. Since Roof cannot be executed more than once or locked up for more than one lifetime, federal prosecution did not affect his punishment. But it can make an important difference in the punishment of people who commit less serious offenses. An assault that might be punished by a year or two in prison under state law can trigger a sentence up to 10 years under the federal hate crime statute if the defendant, like Roof, has a history of writing or saying racist stuff. Such opinions are relevant because they support the charge that the victim was selected "because of" his race. But the upshot is that an offender's benighted views can earn him more prison time than his violent act.

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21 responses to “Dylann Roof's Many Sentences Highlight U.S. Hate Crime Law's Dangerous Redundancy

  1. hate crime law

    This is something that should not even be a concept in American law because it constitutes policing thought. You use a motive to show someone had a reason to commit some heinous act. You punish for the action, not the motive.

    1. I agree that hate crimes are bs but we do and should punish people for their motives. Manslaughter vs 1st degree homicide is a good example of how some ones actions (taking a life) are punished differently based solely on the motive of the offender (whether they intended to kill).

      1. You ever been mugged at pistol point? I have, and I don’t really care if the perp’s motive was that he thought my wallet was stuffed with cash or that I was white and he was black and hated me.

        1. No I have not been mugged at pistol, sorry to hear that you have. In that case, I would say motive doesn’t play a role.

          But the blanket statement that you should always be punished for just your actions and not your motivation defies the principle of Mens Rea which I am in favor of. It also gets bad laws on the books like mandatory minimums which end with people like that one guy who happened to have gun on him while selling some weed but didn’t actually use it and just had it on but he is now serving time as if he committed a violent crime (Reason covered the story, I can’t remember all the details).

          1. I’m with Bob. Part of sentencing is to remove a threat from society and that’s where motive matters much more than the specific action. A person who kills his mom because she’s always been horrible and abusive is a murderer, but may not be much of a threat to anyone else. A person who kills his mom because he hates all people with red hair is a different story.

      2. whether they intended to kill

        Intention is not the same as motive.

    2. You punish for the action, not the motive.

      You convict based on the action (and the intent behind it). But punishment is based on a lot more. Otherwise the same punishment would always be applied for the same crime. Even without hate crime laws, a jury is going to be more likely to give someone like Roof the death penalty because of his motivations for the crime.

  2. Hate crimes are just another way for government to control the outcomes of criminal cases. If the government cannot “get you” on some charges with a certain jury, then they get another shot. That is what this boils down to.

    All crime is hate. This person hates that you have more money than they do, so they steal some. This person kills this person because they hate how they cheated on them.

    In the end, only a fool ever speaks with police about why they did a crime especially when “why” you did something will allow the state to stack even more charges on you.

    This is why I am for the state only being able to charge a single charge per offense and no lesser-included charges. For example, a person is arrested for DUI and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. That is the only charge a jury can consider for guilt and if they do not find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it must be an acquittal. Some jurisdictions allow the jury to find the defendant guilty of lesser included offenses, like less safe driving, etc and this ups the odds of conviction for the state.

    Mistrials not caused by defendant or defense counsel should be deemed acquittals and not retrial is allowed. Some jurisdictions get multiple attempts at retrials.

    1. All crime is hate.

      Nah. A lot is indifference or sociopathy. People don’t (for the most part) steal money because they hate the person who has money. They steal because they want the money and they don’t care about the victim.

      I agree with the rest of what you say.

  3. 18 death sentences for 9 murders? That’ll teach him!

    1. He has the death sentence in 12 systems.

      1. But how did he do in the Kessel run?

  4. Federal prosecutors need press, too, you know.

    1. No they don’t. They are appointed by the president and serve at his pleasure. Generally there is a housecleaning of federal prosecutors when the presidential election puts a new man in the White House. Federal prosecutors (U.S. Attorneys) are not elected and are appointed so they have no need of local coverage for doing an effective job.

  5. Back before Al Franken went nuts, he made a very astute observation: murders that are “hate crimes” should probably be punished less than random ones, because at least there is some motivation evident. You could, in theory, reform a white supremacist and make him no longer a danger to society, but someone who randomly targets victims is just crazy.

    1. That has occurred to me before too. But I’m not sure if I really believe it.

      I guess it comes down to whether the point of prison or the death penalty is to remove dangerous people from society or to punish people based on their moral culpability.


  6. “Thanks to the “dual sovereignty” doctrine, such serial prosecutions do not officially count as double jeopardy, but they amount to the same thing.”

    The government allows us the illusion that we are free, but in most meaningful ways we are all prisoners of the state. I think deep down, we all know this to be true. Virtually all the reasons the United States split off from Great Britain are alive and well here in the United States even if some abuses hide in the shadows; the rest people choose to ignore.

    9/11 was the straw that broke freedom’s back after almost a century of abuse. Freedom was finally traded for safety, and I don’t think there’s a chance the United States will change course.

    1. The “dual sovereignty nonsense was fabricated to allow double prosecutions when the federal bureaucrats are not satisfied with the result in state court. It is a clear and egregious violation of the express prohibition of double jeopardy in the federal constitution. We are not true to our highest law. This is only one of many examples.

      1. I hadn’t considered that before, but I find it quite astute. Of course, that’s really the point of the article. They are “different” crimes. You have to really quotation the split brain of Mens Rea in this case. That two different courts have two definitions of motive applied simultaneously is egregious misuse of power.

        More importantly, it helps lead to mob role situations. If you convict and sentence in a locality that the Fed doesn’t agree with they can override with greater punishment based on thought crime. Motive that leads to multiple murders because of lust is equal to that because of skin color or religion. To me the test is simple. Is an accidental death, manslaughter, different than intentional killing? Absolutely. Is killing someone because they speak a different language different than killing someone because they didn’t have enough money in their wallet? I don’t see how. Both instill similar fear to survivors and store an implicit lack of respect for other humans.

  7. The redundant, costly federal hate crime law is a baby birthed by liberals.

    Liberals = Democrats
    Democrats = this:

    “The whole Democratic Party is now a smoking pile of rubble: In state government things are worse, if anything. The GOP now controls historical record number of governors’ mansions, including a majority of New England governorships. Tuesday’s election swapped around a few state legislative houses but left Democrats controlling a distinct minority. The same story applies further down ballot, where most elected attorneys general, insurance commissioners, secretaries of state, and so forth are Republicans.” http://www.vox.com/policy-and-…..ile-rubble

  8. I can only hope you are correct. The Democrats have brought the country to the brink of ruin.

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