The Parable of the Sower: Why We Can’t Kill Dylann Roof

Once, according to the book of Matthew, Jesus stood in a boat and spoke to a crowd of people who had gathered on the shore. He told them of a farmer, a sower, who had gone to plant seeds. “As he went out and sowed, some of the seeds fell to the wayside, and were eaten by birds. Some of the seeds fell on rocks and stony places, where they didn’t have any room for roots to grow, so the plants sprung up quickly and promisingly, but then withered away because they had no roots. Some of the seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns choked out the small young plants. But some seeds fell on good ground, and the plants grew up to yield thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold of what was planted.”

The people who gathered to hear him speak were confused. That’s it? A story about crops? The crowd wandered off, wondering if there was a cryptic meaning to this or whether it was just some solid, if obvious, advice about where to plant your flowerbed. Undeterred, the disciples followed Jesus and pestered him about it, which they were generally pretty good about doing. “What are you talking about? Why do you have to make things so difficult?” they whined (the disciples were always whining it seems). “Just say what you mean.” But Jesus did say what he meant, is the thing, and the parable of the sower was actually a meta-parable, to borrow a term from the hip. Christ’s message was for certain ears. Ears that were ready to hear it. Ground that was good. Because the message stayed the same no matter who received it, but the reception changed the outcome.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, the small bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sat together, reading and praying, and thinking about the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, the text that they were discussing that day. I don’t need to tell you that Dylann Roof, a gangly white 19 year-old, sat quietly in that room with them, after they’d welcomed him as a guest. I don’t need to go through the details of the horrible and infamous shooting that took place minutes later. And I don’t need to tell you, dear Reader, that Dylann Roof was sentenced last week to die for his terrible crime. And I won’t go through these things again. Not here.

Dylann’s crime is truly unspeakable. We’ve reserved the death penalty for “the worst of the worst” and it’s hard to imagine something worse than this, someone worse than this, with worse motives than this. So why should we talk about sparing his life?

Because just because someone deserves the worst doesn’t mean we treat them that way, dear friends. And there are repercussions to our actions, even when meting out justice.

As the NAACP and several other activists and organizations have pointed out, killing Dylann Roof lends a false sense of legitimacy to the death penalty. We’ve long been aware that the death penalty is used disproportionately in cases where defendants are not white, and most extensively when defendants are black and victims are white. Sentencing a white boy who killed nine black people to death is a talking point for pro-death advocates who seek to prove that the system is not racist, that the results are not unjust.

I think refusing to justify the appearance of the death penalty is enough to warrant Roof’s life being spared and his sentence commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but there are a lot of other reasons, as well.

We struggle, you and I, with how we separate the violence of the criminal from the violence of the State. By this I mean we know somewhere, deep down, that what repulses us is the inclination to violence, and whether that violence is meted out by some twisted, drug-addled teenager with a host of inter-personal issues or by the Government, we don’t really like it.

The Government knows that about us, and it’s gone a long way to try and keep us from realizing that the death penalty is legal violence. It doesn’t seem the same as the out-of-control cops who shoot civilians, or responses in riot gear to protests. It doesn’t seem the same as guards who assault inmates or soldiers fighting in war-torn places.

The reason it doesn’t seem the same is because, unlike those other instances of State-Sponsored Violence, in the courtroom of a death penalty trial the State has to make it seem like its violence is not the same as the violence of the defendant. We’ve done that by moving away from public and messy executions. No more drawing and quartering for us.  We’ve medicalized and sanitized executions (at least in public perception). We don’t show juries pictures of the execution chamber- but we show them pictures of frenzied, chaotic crime scenes. We show them pictures of dead victims with graphic wounds and blood spatter, representing a type of death that jurors, and most of us, don’t often see and are then, by nature, forced to compare with the peaceful repose of the dead bodies we’ve seen previously- grandma in a Sunday dress, carefully made up to look like she’s sleeping.

“No,” says the State. “Our violence is not violence at all. Just a…quick procedure.”

But you and I don’t trust the State.  Not with things like this. Not with things done in grey light.

The origins of the death penalty hail from a time when incarceration was not feasible. Jail did not exist. The punishment didn’t fit the crime very well. The punishment for almost everything was death or dismemberment. We didn’t have time to lock anyone up. We didn’t have enough extra people to spare from gathering or hunting or, later, farming to guard anyone forever. We didn’t have facilities to put criminals in, and we had no police to prevent crime in the first place. We had to send a graphic, public message to others that if you got caught, you would be punished severely. That’s not the case anymore, we have the time and the guards and the facility. We have these resources. We don’t have the excuse.

We also understand more about people. We understand that normal, socially-adjusted, psychologically healthy people don’t do things like Dylann Roof did. We understand that a bad childhood and maladjustment to society don’t necessarily work as excuses for heinous acts, but help explain why the person is so flawed and broken, and studying them might help us understand how to prevent other sick and struggling young people from hurting others in the future. We understand that we don’t kill people who are sick. Sometimes, the best we can do for now is to take them out of society because we don’t want them to hurt anyone else, but we don’t just put them down.

In “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia, disguised as a young attorney, argues for the life of Antonio:

 

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

 

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.

 

Because the truth, dear friend, that you and I both know is that it’s all the Parable of the Sower.  That Christ, and the thousands of other holy and wise men before and since his time that we look up to without regard to flavor of faith, were speaking of mercy and kindness and our duty to be ecstatically and radically merciful. Sometimes there is ground that is rocky or covered in thorns and unable to bring forward fruit. It’s up to the good ground, the ground that happened to be free of rocks and thorns and away from hungry birds, to grow enough for us all. Even when we don’t think it’s fair. Even when we don’t want to.  Even when we fear the thorns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ask Allison: October 19, 2016

Dear Allison,

I need tips to stop being such a sore loser.

Love,
Sour Samantha

 

Dear and Gentle Samantha,

I want to be honest with you, Samantha, because you are me. I needed to hear the answer to this question, and so I let my inner-Samantha ask it. Dear Reader, you are my heart, and I will always be straightforward with you- most intimate public: I lost a hearing last week, and the judge gave my client an unexpectedly harsh, but unfortunately legal, sentence. I am grieving and furious, and I am struggling to move on.

The feeling is terrible, because my pride is stung that I so misread the situation and went into the hearing confident that I would be able to convince the judge to see things my way. And then she did not. The ache inside me is only made worse by the fact that I know I wasn’t the one who went to prison. How can I care that my pride is hurt when someone else is suffering so much more than I am because of my failure? This man trusted me. He barely knew me, but he put the next years of his life in my hands because he had to. Because he was poor and stuck and frightened and powerless in the cage the State had put him in and I was the only one who showed up to help.

This is the fire that mocks the sun: the shame and anger and embarrassment and sorrow that are burning in me because of this. The judge’s words fell out of her mouth like something thick and strange and unreal, and her demeanor was so casual that at first I didn’t understand. It took me a minute to even put together what happened because her style was so flippant and it so mismatched the meaning of the actual words she was saying. Like someone announcing, “The cancer has spread to your brain” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

They teach you in law school to say “Thank you, Your Honor” after all rulings. F**k that. I will not. When the ruling is unjust and adverse, I will not stand there like a slack-jawed fool begging for another slap in the face. I respect the bench, the office, the court, but I don’t have to simper and fawn and respect the institutionalized biases and social control mechanisms that caused that person sitting on that bench to make that ruling.

I can go on and on all day about every aspect of what happened, but I won’t bore you with my heartache. The truth is I don’t know how to be a graceful loser when these things are at risk. We play for high stakes, you and I, Samantha. If it were only selfish, stupid pride on the line I would tell you to work to conquer ego, comfort yourself with thoughts of things that are bigger than you. But that’s not what we lose. Our losses are years of a person’s life, and I don’t know how we take that well.

I pictured the prosecutor going out that night to celebrate the win. I pictured the prosecutor raising a drink and telling friends about the surprisingly long sentence and cheering. I walked into the bathroom and I cried, my fingernails digging into my palms as I balled my fists in futile rage. I talked to my client’s anxious sister in another state. Over the phone, I told her what happened as she wept and prayed. I told her I was so angry, and so sorry. I pictured my client, lead back to his cell, dropping his head into his hands as he sat down. I thought about the judge, who probably will never think of my client and his life again, and barely thought of him during the hearing.

I don’t think I can ever be a good sport when this is the game. I think the best I can do is keep getting back up each day. I will make that choice today, to stay and fight. Wish me luck.

 

Love Always,
Allison

 

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: October 12, 2016

Dear Allison,

I am scared of going to trial. I haven’t admitted this out loud to anyone yet, but I’m absolutely petrified that I am going to have to actually go to trial one of these days. I’ve been practicing for a couple of years, and I thought it was coming, but it hasn’t yet, which is making it even worse. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never been to trial, and I’m afraid that prosecutors can tell I don’t want to go to trial and are taking advantage of me. What can I do to get over this?

Yours,
Scaredy Steve

 

Dearest, Darling Steve,

I understand. I do. In this system where so few cases actually end up going to trial, it can be hard for a private practice attorney who is just starting out to get enough cases to get some trial experience. Which is why you need to sit with other, more experienced lawyers who are going to trial. Volunteer and they will love you for it. Everyone needs an extra pair of eyes and ears at trial, and, despite what everyone’s saying about law school right now, your education is worth something.

But aside from sitting with other lawyers (which will, I promise, greatly ease your anxiety about trial), how can you deal with this now, during your ongoing negotiations?

First of all, your vision of your first trial is really skewed. You see yourself, frantic and panicky, sitting next to your scared client. You see yourself facing down a jury, who are silently, effectively judging you, and having nothing to say, or not being able to come up with the proper objections or responses in the split of that hot second. But, dear friend, that’s not what it looks like because you are not going to be alone. Your darling Allison will be with you, in flesh or in spirit.

Your first trial is not a death penalty case (thankfully, because based on some war-stories I’ve heard from our older compadres, it seems like that actually sort of used to happen to people). Do not listen to other attorneys who brag long and loud about how they’ve never tried a misdemeanor case, or they started out with a murder and won an acquittal on their first ever trial by themselves. IF those stories are true, it’s nothing you need to aspire for. Those cases, when they happen, are anomalies and generally the result of some combination of (1) an older lawyer realizing what was going on and getting heavily involved behind the scenes and (2) pure-ol’ dumb-f**k luck. We don’t risk our bar card and our client’s life for bravado.

Your first trial is a misdemeanor or a non-violent, low-level felony (if you must) and you have a second-chair to sit with you. You will not go alone. Prosecutors don’t go to trial alone, and there’s no reason you should, either.

Some counties have programs where judges will even sign off on timesheets and pay second-chairs for trial fees, though those are admittedly difficult to come by. If you can’t find anyone to go with you that you trust, you need to contact the public defender’s office. At least at our office, in Fort Bend, we have plenty of lawyers who will sit with you fo’ free (as long as your case is court-appointed), and we are right across the street. If none of the PD’s office lawyers are able to join you, I promise you, Steve, I will personally help you find someone. If your case is retained, the PD’s office can also refer you to young hungry lawyers, much like yourself, who could use the experience. You are not alone. Do not go alone. It is not brave, it is not valiant, it is not wise. In trial, as in everything else, it’s easier with a friend.

When I was in law school advocacy classes, I kept hearing people say, “You have to treat the courtroom as if it were your living room.” Fat chance. When you first start practicing, the courtroom is more like an ornate, confusing interview room where you’re expected to know where everything is without anyone ever showing you, and you’re terrified that you’re going to touch something and it will break and everyone will stare at you, horrified, that an imposter has made it through the gates and you will be seen for what you are: the fakiest fake faker who ever faked. OMG!

Don’t worry. It gets better.

Because you’re not a faker, and everyone else feels that way, too.

I can’t tell you, Beloved, how many hours I have spent trying to nonchalantly wander around courtrooms and find the reset forms. I didn’t want to ask anyone because then, you see, they would know that I was a noob. Do you know how silly that is? Lawyers ask me where reset forms are all the time and I don’t think twice about it. But when it’s our own sweet selves, we assume everyone sees every mistake and misstep, because we are so vain.

No one really notices us, though. Think of the last time you saw someone else do something embarrassing. I have a hard time coming up with anything, because I generally am not watching others so closely, or even if I do notice something, I don’t think twice about it. That time in 7th grade that I was talking really fast in class and a spit-covered jawbreaker fell out of my mouth and bounced three of the slowest, loudest bounces you’ve ever heard in your life across the tile floor to the feet of the teacher…that’s burned in my memory forever, though.

The key to life and trial is to banish our vanity. It’s an ongoing struggle, and most of us will never achieve the end goal, but the pursuit is worth it.

In my experience, Steve, the thing about it is that it just takes time. The more times you appear in court, the less you are afraid of it. The more times you fall, the more times you realize that the fall won’t kill you, and eventually you stop flinching. The nerves don’t ever totally go away, though, or at least they shouldn’t. Even Cicero, the greatest orator who ever lived, reported that the first minute of his speeches he was a quaking, shuddering, nervous wreck. We should never forget the awesome responsibility we have to our client, but I promise, dear Steve, that the terror will subside.

Take That S**t To Trial,

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: October 5, 2016

Dear Allison,

I saw something horrible on the internet the other day. A story about how Hillary Clinton offered to represent a child molester and then used some legal tricks to get the case to go away. Apparently, she even tried to make it sound like the little girl who was molested “liked older men.” Like that’s some kind of excuse. I am disgusted. What kind of person does that? I thought about you, and about your column, and I wondered if you had any defense for this sort of thing? I know you’ve written before about how you have a duty to defend people, but seeking out that kind of guy and then pulling a bunch of trickery to avoid justice being served is just unethical no matter what. I get that everyone has a right to a fair trial, but this was just a slick lawyer sliming a criminal’s way to freedom. I can’t imagine you’d do that. Would you?

Yours,
Disgusted Don

 

Dearest, Darling Don,

Yes. I would.

Though I will shy away from any political aspects of this question, from a legal ethics standpoint, I don’t think she did anything wrong. First, I think it’s fair to point out that Clinton didn’t offer to represent the guy, but was appointed by a judge. She had recently started a legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law, which provided low-and-no cost legal services to poor people. A judge was presented with this case, and with a defendant who was too poor to hire a lawyer, and the prosecutor involved with the case recommended to the judge that Clinton handle it.

I’m just going to stop right here and tell you that most prosecutors probably wouldn’t endorse me to take a case. If a judge asked one of them who they thought should take a case, they’d probably say someone who they knew was just going to roll over and take a plea- not someone who was going to fight and push and test.

There’s evidence-from the prosecutor- that Clinton tried to get off of the case and told the prosecutor, “I don’t want to represent this guy. I can’t stand this. Can you get me off?” After communicating with the judge, Clinton was not allowed off the case and had to continue to represent him.

Most of the time, dear reader, when people say “he got off by legal tricks” or “loopholes” or “technicalities” in criminal cases, what they mean- what the correct legal terminology is- would be “constitutional rights violations” or “serious evidentiary problems.” Judges, both at the trial and appellate level, are extremely reluctant to let someone they think is guilty of a heinous crime back on the streets and it usually takes a lot of pretty wild violations to get that to happen. Additionally, there are specific rules that dictate what evidence is admissible at a trial and what is not- and those rules are all related to whether or not the evidence is reliable. If something is not admissible, it’s because it’s not reliable.

As a defense attorney, my job is not to “seek justice.” That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But the reason that’s not my job is because it’s someone else’s job. The prosecutor’s job. It’s his job to seek justice for the State. My job is to represent my client and his best interest to the best of my ability no matter who he is and how much I don’t like him personally– because no one else is going to do that.

Sometimes, I think, seeking justice and zealously representing my clients go hand in hand. Frankly, I don’t think it’s ever justice to lock someone up in a box for the rest of their life, especially when our system is so remarkably, overwhelmingly biased and flawed. There are many times what I’m advocating for as my client’s best interest (drug rehab rather than prison time, for example) is also in society’s best interest (rehab is cheaper and decreases recidivism, for example). But sometimes it’s not.

This isn’t me foisting off social responsibility. This isn’t me trying to be a slimy lawyer. This is me telling you that legal ethics dictate that I represent my client zealously- and if I can’t do that, I shouldn’t represent him at all. This is me telling you that if I were your lawyer, or your son’s lawyer- you would expect that of me, too. This is me telling you that it doesn’t matter whether I think you’re guilty or not, I still have to do my job. And that the State should do theirs.

My understanding of Clinton’s case is that she requested that the Court order a psychiatric evaluation of the complainant, which is normal and routine in cases like that. In her motion, she highlighted for the Court that she had been informed that the complainant had made previous allegations about older men, and she cited a child psychologist who had said that sometimes troubled children confuse fantasies with reality and romanticize things inappropriately. All her motion sought to do was have an examination performed to determine if there were psychological issues present that might have influenced the young girl’s statements. This is not underhanded. It’s not victim-blaming. It’s not saying that the young girl had a thing for older men, and that justifies a rape. This was investigating whether or not the girl was credible, which is something, when we are seeking justice or to zealously represent our clients, we are obligated to investigate. Why are we afraid of that investigation? Shouldn’t we want the truth? And if the State’s case is so strong, and this guy is such a monster, what are we afraid of?

There were also issues with the evidence that made some of it inadmissible. Inadmissible means that the evidence was not relevant to the case or that it is unreliable- so people shouldn’t consider it when they’re deciding if the defendant is guilty.

There can be a lot of reasons evidence is unreliable and shouldn’t be considered- but a lot of the time it’s because the State didn’t do their job. They didn’t test it correctly, they didn’t use scientifically proven methods to test it, they didn’t preserve it in a way that ensures it wasn’t tampered with, or it was collected in an illegal way, etc. Evidence that the State seeks to introduce at trial is problematic because of the way it was gathered by the State or presented by the State. It is not an ethical failing in a defense attorney for pointing that out. That’s the State’s fault. If the evidence against this guy was really so overwhelming, why didn’t the State do its job?

The case didn’t even get dismissed. According to court documents, he plead to a lesser charge of “Fondling a Child Under 14” and was sentenced to a year in jail and four years of probation. That offer is something that the State extended. It’s not something that Clinton somehow forced the Court to do. The way plea agreements work is that the prosecutor evaluates his case, discusses issues with defense counsel, and decides what he is willing to agree to instead of going to trial. If the evidence was that this guy was really a horrible rapist, why didn’t the State do its job?

The truth is that most people charged with sex crimes against children don’t really get a fair shake at trial. The truth is that juries see a man charged with something awful like that, and they think there must be some truth to the allegation, and if not, he must have done SOMETHING wrong just to be there, charged with something so horrible. Prosecutors know that, and there’s no reason not to try the case before a jury when you know the advantage is in your favor.   So why didn’t the State do its job?

Whatever you think about Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate notwithstanding, the fact that she acted as an attorney for a man accused of a terrible crime who could not afford a lawyer, and then provided him with zealous legal representation should not tell you anything negative at all about her character. I hope, in fact, that it tells you something positive about her character: that she believes in the Constitution of the United States and believes that its protections apply to everyone.

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: September 28, 2016

Dear Allison,

I know you personally and happen to have discovered that you are somewhat surprisingly, although not so secretly, quite domestic. By this I mean that I know you’re a pretty good cook and that you eschew lunchtime invitations for whatever you’ve brought with you. At the risk of over-reaching, what are some good on-the-go breakfasts or courthouse appropriate lunches I might brown bag to save an extra nickel?

Yours,

Hungry Harriet

 

Dearest, Darling Harriet,

I think your question is delightful. I am, as you mention, somewhat surprisingly but not so secretly, rather domestic. You might be able to tell from my generous proportions that I am also not a fan of skipping breakfast, even on a rushed courthouse morning.

My (favorite) husband often says he doesn’t have time for me to make him breakfast (I know…turning DOWN breakfast made by someone else? Especially your lovely lawyerly wife? He doesn’t know how good he has it). This is never actually true, though, and I demonstrate for him regularly that toasting an English muffin and scrambling an egg to put on top of it, slapped with a slice of cheese and a wheel of tomato takes about 1.5 minutes total.

Mark Bennett, longtime mentor and lawyer extraordinaire, may not wish for me to reveal his secret in such a public forum, but I will tell you that one of the very first things he ever taught me about trial work was that one should eat a decent, low-carb breakfast prior to trial. The low-carb part prevents a sugar crash when, invariably, you must spend your lunch break pondering, about the latest kink in your case, “What fresh hell is this?”

I tend to agree with Bennett, and encourage you, Sweetest Fig, to plan ahead. Hard boil some eggs the night before while you binge-watch reruns of “Orange is the New Black” and try to convince yourself that it counts as legal research. Two eggs and a string cheese will get you far, my friend.

On non-trial days, when carbs are in the picture, nothing beats toast. Think about it. Toast is delicious, easy, and reasonably healthy. But when was the last time you made toast? Why did you forget about it? Toast has always been there for you. I am a fan of the trending avocado toast, but I believe firmly in adding a schmear of hummus, a slice of turkey, or a sliced, hardboiled egg to up the protein value. Alternatively, you can do what I actually do most mornings and get a nice slice of sweet, grainy wheat bread, slather it thickly with Kerrygold butter, and then top it with Hagelslag. Hagelslag are the Dutch version of sprinkles. Especially chocolate sprinkles. Don’t look at me cross-eyed like that. I’m not a farmer just because I eat sprinkles on toast. These are different. Friends, we have been deceived by the sprinkle lobby- we have been eating brown crayon shavings for years. Hagelslag are real chocolate and they are amazing. If you like Nutella, you will LOVE this.

As far as courthouse lunches are concerned, I try to avoid anything especially pungent. I recently started bringing Pho-Kits, a term my dear brother coined. A large Tupperware container with chicken bouillon, cilantro, bean sprouts, dry rice noodles, thinly-sliced onions, and spinach leaves or other vegetables, a little sriracha, and a little lime juice. If you have access to a refrigerator, you can even add some thin slices of meat or some frozen dumplings. At lunch, fill the whole vessel with boiling water and voila! Fresh soup, with no spills. It’s amazing how quickly all that stuff cooks in there, and you can throw it together in the morning in about three minutes.

Also, let’s not underestimate the value of fresh fruit. I’ve had several people comment on my wonderful perfume when, in fact, I had just covertly eaten a tangerine. I’m a fan of the multi-tasking.

Once, when your darling Allison was a very new lawyer, indeed, she sat in a courtroom, head pounding from poor decisions the night before. In the door walked her dearest law partner. “Here,” he said, “I brought you some juice with Sprite in it.” Nectar of the Gods. Uncertain what courtroom rules pertaining to non-water beverages were, she leaned over to the bailiff. “Hey,” she whispered. “Can I have juice in here?” “Yes,” he whispered back, looking like he understood, “as long as it’s plain, nothing fancy.” She nodded, thoughtfully, and proceeded to sip. Crafty Allison did not tell him that this was pomegranate, the fanciest of all possible juices, and pretended, instead, that this was but lowly cranberry. It can be done. Nutrients can be had in the courtroom.

We encourage our clients to take care of themselves, and we should, too. Besides, it’s hard to maintain our best face at happy hour when we haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday.

In Solidarity,

AJ