On Jan. 11, Dylann Roof became the first person sentenced to die for federal hate crimes, according to The Associated Press.
“There is no room in America’s smallest jail cell for hatred, racism and discrimination,” said Malcolm Graham, a relative of one of the victims, according to the AP.
There is no dispute. Roof’s actions were horrific and are deserving of the death penalty. But, the criteria surrounding his sentence is a reason for concern. For the first time in history, we’ve opened the door for punishing federal hate crimes with death.
“The jury convicted Roof (…) of all 33 federal charges he faced, including hate crimes,” according to the AP.
Shouldn’t Roof be facing death solely because of his actions and not because of his feelings toward his victims?
Perhaps what is most concerning about this judicial milestone is how broad the definition of hate crime is and the increasing number of those who claim hate crimes are present in their communities.
According to the FBI, a federal hate crime is defined as “a traditional offense like murder, arson or vandalism with an added element of bias.”
According to the bureau’s website, federal hate crimes involve a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.”
With a definition so broad, and where recommending death now falls under that definition, it’s hard to see where to draw the line in how hate crimes are treated in the courts. This may not be as concerning if it weren’t for the increasing claims and cries of hate crimes in the news and social media.
The New York Times started a project titled “This Week in Hate,” tracking “hate crimes and harassment around the country since the election of Donald Trump,” according to the paper’s website.
CNN’s story, “‘Make American White Again’: Hate speech and crimes post-election,” highlights the experiences of several victims of hate crimes. These acts vary from graffiti, threatening letters, verbal assault and physical assault.
Organizations — both within the government and outside the government — track and publish data showing the presence of hate crimes in the U.S.
Combine this increasing awareness of hate crimes with a broad definition of what actually defines it, and the new expansion of punishments available for those crimes, and we’re on the edge of a slippery slope.
“The verdict confers no certainty that Mr. Roof will ever be put to death,” according to The New York Times. “His case will probably go through years of appeals.”
It’s true Roof may never see the death penalty. But, in the case that he does, I wish we would recognize that it was for the murders he senselessly committed and not his racial motivations.
Regardless of his feelings, lives are still lost, and families still mourn.
And who’s to say that one day, if this issue is left unchecked, undiscussed or undefined, smaller, lesser offenses won’t be considered “hate crimes” and warrant high jail time or even death?
“Hate won’t win,” Dan Simmons Jr. said in a press conference following Roof’s sentencing, according to CNN.
He’s right — it won’t.
Yes, crimes motivated by hatred happen every day. But those crimes are just that: crimes. And in punishing those crimes, the death penalty shouldn’t punish feelings; it should punish actions.