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Just days apart from each other last week, two of the most high-profile death penalty cases in memory reached sharply different outcomes. The Supreme Court paved the way for the execution of Dylann Roof, the neo-Nazi behind the massacre at a historic Black church in Charleston. Then, two days later, a jury delivered a life sentence — rather than the capital punishment sought by the government — in the case of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.
Several families of the Parkland victims expressed disgust at the latter verdict, saying that they were “devastated and shocked” that the jury gave Cruz life imprisonment rather than death.
The three jurors who spared Cruz from capital punishment have a high-profile defender in Rev. Sharon Risher, who lost her mother Ethel Lance and her cousins Tyzwana Sanders and Susie Jackson in the 2015 Charleston massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“They voted their conscience,” Risher said of the jurors on Law&Crime. “They voted what they felt in their heart, and our legal system gives the jurors the power to take all the evidence in and to vote their conscience. And that’s what they did. It took a lot for them to go against all of the others. It took courage to do that.”
“Nobody Should Have to Go Through That”
On the latest episode of Law&Crime’s podcast Objections: with Adam Klasfeld, the Rev. Risher explains how the profound loss of three of her family members in the Charleston church shooting led her on an unlikely patch toward anti-death penalty activism. She reflects on seeing her mother and cousins’ murderer in court, moving beyond a desire for retribution, and shares words of support for Parkland jurors as they increasingly come under criticism.
After the court released the names of one of those three life-voting jurors, the woman faced a wave of harassment and threats. That woman is in the reverend’s prayers.
“I pray that this lady would have the means to be able to keep herself safe because nobody should have to go through that — because you believe what you believe,” Risher said in an extended interview.
Despite her ordination as a reverend, Risher said her opposition to the death penalty wasn’t entirely theological or lifelong. Instead, she said, it was the culmination of a long intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey that followed her mother and cousins’ murders.
“I don’t think I just outright said ‘I wanted him to die,'” Risher reflected. “Because once I knew that they were going for the death penalty, that’s when I really started to read a lot about the death penalty, because I really hadn’t thought about the death penalty. You know what I mean? My world, my little bubble that I had myself in that just wasn’t something that was on my radar.”
Like most of the families, Risher experienced the natural thirst for retribution the first time she saw Roof in the courtroom.
“If I could have gotten my hands around his neck, I would say — as saintly as I am, as ordained as I am — I would have choked the living daylights out of him,” she said, before adding with a laugh that she has “self-control.”
“The Holy Spirit guides me from doing stuff,” she added.
“He Sat Like a Zombie”
Now a vocal opponent of the death penalty, Risher went to Capitol Hill for a forum on gun control on Sept. 10, 2019, following a spate of mass shootings. She’s the author of the book For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre and the chair of the board of directors for the group Death Penalty Action.
Her families members didn’t share her philosophy on capital punishment.
“My sister wanted him dead,” she said. “I didn’t want him dead. All the family members wanted him dead. I didn’t believe in the death penalty. Even though I was running my mouth about it, I felt really alone.”
Over the course of the trial, Risher said, she read more about the disproportionate enforcement of the death penalty on Black people. She said that she turned to the Bible for guidance, but she said that the turning point arrived for her with a surprising emotion.
“When I started to feel sorry for Dylann Roof, that’s when I knew that regardless of — even for him, even for him — the love, the grace that God gives me gave me my heart to be empathetic to this man that just killed nine people and my mama. How was that?” she asked, marveling. “How was that?”
At that moment, Risher said, the mass murderer resembled a “little boy.”
“He sat like a zombie,” she recalled. “His head didn’t move. His body didn’t move. He just sat there: still, focused, on whatever it was forward that he was looking at, and I’m looking at him: this frail-looking young boy. Because of my faith, and who I am, I had to say, ‘What happened? What happened that made you want to do this?'”
With the Supreme Court rejecting Roof’s petition, Risher likely won’t see Roof again in person. She’s resolved not to witness his execution, if it happens, saying: “It’s not going to do me any good.”
“It would be crazy if I’m standing up in front of Indiana, where he is, saying: ‘Don’t kill Dylann Roof!’ But you know what? That’s what I believe, and I strongly believe that,” she said. “But I don’t have to be there for that. That’s just a little bit much.”
For Risher, the death penalty aggravates the pain felt by families by keeping the perpetrators in the national spotlight.
“So as long as he’s on death row, and he had the opportunity to appeal, it was bringing it back up every time — every time,” Risher said. “So now, he’s worn that appeal process out, so we shouldn’t hear no more about him until they start to set an execution date.”
More than commenting on the politics of the death penalties on the podcast, Risher shares intimate reflections of her family, her upbringing, and the historic church that the racist killer targeted.
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