A majority of black South Carolinians say Dylann Roof should be sentenced to life without parole – not death – if he is found guilty of murdering nine African-American members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.
But most white South Carolinians say Roof should be sentenced to death if he is found guilty, according to a University of South Carolina poll.
Roof faces federal and state charges in connection with the Charleston massacre. Both federal and state prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
The difference of opinion over Roof reflects historically differing attitudes toward the death penalty between black and white South Carolinians, according to the USC poll, released Saturday.
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The poll – on race relations a year after the Emanuel Nine massacre – also found stark differences in how South Carolina’s white and African-American residents view the criminal justice system.
The poll found:
▪ A majority of black South Carolinians – 64.7 percent – said Roof should be sentenced to life without parole if found guilty.
▪ Just three in 10 African-Americans – 30.9 percent – said Roof should be sentenced to death. Another 4.4 percent said they didn’t know what the punishment should be, according to the poll, which surveyed 800 random S.C. adults.
▪ The majority of whites – 64.6 percent – think Roof should be sentenced to death.
▪ Only 29.9 percent of whites think Roof should be sentenced to life without parole; 5.6 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know.
‘We can empathize with anyone’
The question of whether to seek the death penalty against Roof divides the families of those slain in Charleston.
Some family members oppose the death penalty. Others say it would be justice.
The findings of the USC poll reflect most black South Carolinians’ consistent opposition to the death penalty and most whites’ consistent support for it, said Monique Lyle, a USC political scientist who conducted the poll along with USC’s Bob Oldendick.
The majority of black South Carolinians – 64.9 percent – oppose the death penalty, according to the poll. The majority of white South Carolinians – 69.4 percent – favor it.
The African-American community’s opposition to the death penalty reflects its history with the criminal justice system, said Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of Charleston’s Mount Zion AME Church.
“Most black people would not want someone to be executed because” so many African-Americans have been executed, said Middleton, a longtime friend to Clementa Pinckney, the Emanuel pastor and state senator who was among the nine slain.
“We have been brutalized in this country, therefore, we can empathize with anyone … who would receive ultimate judgment,” Middleton said, citing America’s history of slavery.
Beyond that history, African-Americans also tend to be extremely religious, said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, noting the Biblical commandment: Thou shall not kill.
In addition, a life sentence without parole now means that a defendant will spend life in prison. “That seems to be sufficient for most African-Americans as punishment,” even in the case of Roof, said Rutherford, an attorney.
The African-American community also believes in a rehabilitative and repentant society, said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who declined to discuss Roof specifically. (Malloy, an attorney, represents the family of Pinckney.)
African-Americans also have concerns about the fairness of the justice system, said Todd Shaw, a USC professor of political science and African-American studies.
“I don’t think there would be an exception for someone such as Dylann Roof,” Shaw said, adding some African-Americans feel “bringing about his death will not bring about justice.”
White, blacks differ on use of deadly force
While they differ over the death penalty and Roof, black and white South Carolinians are in general agreement in some areas.
Both agree, for example, that it was right to charge a white North Charleston police officer with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist, Walter Scott.
That racially charged incident, which was videoed, occurred two months before Roof entered Emanuel AME.
A majority of whites and blacks who recalled the Scott shooting said it was the right decision to charge the officer, Michael Slager, with murder.
In the USC poll, 89.6 percent of blacks said it was the right decision to charge Slager with murder, and 79.4 percent of whites agreed.
The poll also found:
▪ South Carolinians are nearly unanimous – 100 percent of blacks and 98.7 percent of whites – in saying it is a good idea for more police officers to wear body cameras, a post-Scott reform that legislators still are trying to pay for.
▪ A majority of white South Carolinians – 85.5 percent – and black South Carolinians – 61.3 percent – feel mostly safe with police in their community.
▪ However, 30.9 percent of blacks said police in the community make them feel mostly anxious, a feeling shared by only 12.2 percent of whites.
White and black South Carolinians differ strongly on whether police are too quick to use deadly force.
The majority of blacks –78 percent – said police are too quick to use deadly force. However, the majority of whites – 77.5 percent – said police use deadly force only when necessary.
That difference in opinion reflects the real-world experiences of black South Carolinians, USC’s Shaw said.
The shooting also triggered underlying sentiments and fears.
Rutherford used himself as an example, saying he is 45, the leader of Democrats in the S.C. House and a lawyer.
“And I still tense up when I see a police officer behind me,” Rutherford said. “And I know I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Race relations in SC
Some findings from a USC poll on race relations and the Emanuel shooting, released Saturday
If found guilty of killing nine Charleston Emanuel AME Church members, Roof should be:
Sentenced to death
64.6 percent of whites, 30.9 percent of blacks
Sentenced to life without parole
64.7 percent of blacks, 29.9 percent of whites
Removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds was:
The right decision
68.1 percent of blacks, 52.1 percent of whites
The wrong decision
40.6 percent of whites, 18.1 percent of blacks
Will race relations in SC improve?
Asked if relations between blacks and whites always be a problem for South Carolina or will a solution eventually be worked out?
Always a problem
54.5 percent of blacks, 36.1 percent of whites
Eventually will be worked out
57.6 percent of whites, 43.9 percent of blacks
Is the criminal justice system biased?
Asked if the U.S. criminal justice system is biased in favor of blacks, biased against blacks or does it generally give blacks fair treatment?
Biased in favor of blacks
3.9 percent of whites and 0 percent of blacks
Biased against blacks
82.3 percent of blacks, 36.7 percent of whites
Treats blacks fairly
59.5 percent of whites, 17.7 percent of blacks