“I’m not crazy. I have to do this.”
A witness, hiding under a desk, heard Dylann Roof utter those words as he opened fire on a Bible study class at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, killing the pastor and eight parishioners.
The American justice system happily accepted his self-diagnosis. Wednesday, Roof was sentenced to die.
Dylann Roof was an unsympathetic horror, a white supremacist who nurtured some crazed delusion that murdering innocent black churchgoers would set off a race war. Even his mugshot, with that cretinous stare, could creep you out.
Good riddance, I guess. Except that there’s something not quite just about a system that allows a delusional 22-year-old ninth-grade drop-out to act as his own lawyer during his trial’s crucial sentencing phase.
His only chance at avoiding the death penalty would have been presenting evidence of a psychological disorder. And surely there was something amiss in his twisted brain. But Roof notified the judge that, “I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence.”
The New York Times reported that Roof, in a mad, meandering, racist, hand-scrawled jailhouse manifesto, had declared, “I want to state that I am morally opposed to psychology. It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
So that was that. Roof called no witnesses. The jury heard no mitigating evidence about a troubled childhood or an impaired mental state. His psychiatric evaluations didn’t make it into evidence. He didn’t plead for his life. His legal defense against capital punishment was no defense at all.
Roof’s mental state may not have met the criminal justice system’s strict definition of insanity, but clearly an able lawyer could have mounted a viable argument against capital punishment. The jurors still might have decided that the death penalty was appropriate, but at least their verdict would have been fully informed. Instead, the court indulged Roof’s delusions and packed him off to death row. It’s like accommodating a suicide.
We cling to that farcical principle in the United States, allowing the delusional (unless they are an imminent threat to themselves or others) to make up their own minds whether they’re crazy or not. That accounts for why so many pitiable homeless people roam city streets in deep conversation with unseen entities.
In South Florida, the mass-murder case against Esteban Santiago promises yet another troubling study into the confluence of mental impairment and criminal justice. Esteban was the gunman who went on an inexplicable, random shooting spree at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, killing five and wounding six others.
As my colleagues David Ovalle and Jay Weaver reported, federal prosecutors are considering whether to purse the death penalty. Santiago’s only real defense would be his diminished mental state. The Iraq war combat veteran had been treated in an Alaskan psychiatric facility. And just two months before he flew into Fort Lauderdale with no luggage other than his 9mm pistol, Santiago had complained to FBI agents in Anchorage that voices in his head were urging him to watch Islamic terrorist videos.
Crazy, sure. Yet, in our legal system, probably not crazy enough to avoid a criminal conviction. But maybe his psychiatric history can keep him off death row.
Or maybe not. On Thursday, Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project released a study that examined 48 Florida death row cases involving non-unanimous jury verdicts. (The study was in response to the Florida Supreme Court ruling last month that required new sentence hearings for 150 death row prisoners.)
The Harvard study, limited to death row cases from five Florida counties (Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Pinellas), found that two-thirds of the prisoners were suffering from “serious mental impairments.”
Clearly, something’s out of whack with Florida’s criminal justice system, where the mentally ill are often held to the same standards of culpability as a sane adult. In 2012, Florida executed John Errol Ferguson, a cold, vicious killer from Miami, who before his crime spree, had been committed to a state mental hospital as a paranoid schizophrenic who was “grossly psychotic” and who “did not know right from wrong nor the nature and consequences of his acts.” But he had been released from the hospital in a monumental and deadly bureaucratic screw-up.
Ferguson was so far gone that when he was strapped into the death gurney, he declared he was the “Prince of God” being prepared for heavenly ascension. Yet the justice system pretended that the prince was a rational being.
I was in the Broward courtroom 20 years ago when Crazy Eddie Gryczan took over his own defense. Crazy Eddie, with a long history of serious mental disorders, had stabbed his mother five times, broken her neck, placed a bag over her head and then hung out with her rotting corpse for 11 days, living off home delivery pizza orders, before calling 911.
Eddie, acting as his own lawyer, had mounted a long, rambling argument to the jury, demanding that they give him the death penalty. “I do not ask for or wish you to show me any mercy,” he told the jurors. “I have not shed one tear over the horrifying death of my mother.”
Bill Lazwell, the famously able public defender whom Eddie had fired, walked out of the courtroom in disbelief. “We've just spent five hours trying to impose a logical legal system on a guy who’s mentally ill,” he said.
The jury complied with Gryczan’s wishes, voting for the death penalty. But Circuit Court Judge Paul Backman decided otherwise. He gave Eddie a life sentence. In that lunatic proceeding, it was like a sudden burst of sanity.