Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for him.”
The image and the accompanying article bring to mind a discussion I had on Twitter last week, a discussion which the TWiB! Prime crew touched upon in Episode 706, “White People Please Be Peaceful,” about the differences in the media’s treatment of criminals based on their race. It’s worth expanding on that discussion here.
When I started my legal career at a firm called Jenner & Block in Chicago, the firm handled a few death penalty appeals, and I was fortunate enough to be able to help out with legal research on some of those cases. That was in the mid-to-late 1980s, long before former Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty here, and longer still before the Illinois General Assembly abolished the death penalty altogether. Yet, because of certain personnel changes on the Illinois Supreme Court, there was a chance – albeit a slim one – that the judiciary would strike down the death penalty under our state constitution, as it had come close to doing in the early 1980s.
In any event, in those appeals, one of the issues we explored was the mental health of the men (and at that time, there were only men) on Illinois’ death row. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most, if not all, of them had suffered significant trauma in their past. They had been through physical, mental, and emotional abuse, and in some cases, sexual abuse, as children. They had been exposed to extreme violence at a very young age, witnessing horrible crimes committed against friends and family members, including rape and murder. Many of the men on death row had been victims of or had witnessed extreme domestic violence, and many of them had been had been introduced to drugs and alcohol – often by family members or family friends – as teenagers or preteens.
Naturally, that sort of trauma impacts a person’s mental health. It’s safe to say few of us could have endured these things as children and come out unscathed. And please note, in these appeals we were not arguing that childhood trauma and its effects on the mental health of death row inmates somehow excused the crimes for which they had been convicted; only that it should have been considered by the judges or juries who decided to impose the death penalty in their cases. That is, in the sentencing phase of a capital case, the judge or jury ordinarily is required to consider a series of aggravating and mitigating factors to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate, and we were arguing that this sort of childhood trauma and its mental effects should have been considered as factors in mitigation. That’s it.
Ultimately, however, those arguments fell on deaf ears. Nobody – not the state, not the judges handling those appeals, and certainly not the media – cared one whit about what these men had been through (as children, mind you); and certainly nobody thought it should have excused their actions, or should even have been considered as a factor mitigating against the imposition of death sentences. Needless to say, none of those men had his story of childhood abuse and trauma splayed across the front pages of daily newspapers, or talked about by newscasters with furrowed brows.
But so here’s the point. The vast majority of the men on Illinois’ death row in the 1980s were Black and Latino, because the death penalty has always been imposed disproportionately on people of color. And that, of course, explains why the childhood trauma they suffered was never so much as a blip on anybody’s radar screen.
Poor Dylann Roof, though. He’s white, so his childhood trauma matters. He can’t just be a racist terrorist who killed innocent people. There has to be something more to his story. Why is that, I wonder?
No, actually, I don’t. I’m pretty sure I know why.