An Unnecessary Indictment of Dylann Roof

Today, the Justice Department indicted Dylann Roof on 33 federal hate crime charges for the killings of nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston last month. This indictment is entirely unnecessary.

Hard as it may be for some to imagine now, there was a long time in this country when racially and politically motivated violence against blacks was not prosecuted by state and local authorities. Or sometimes, as in the case of Emmett Till—the young boy from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly being too forward with a white woman—prosecution was a farce and the perpetrators were acquitted.

But in the present case, South Carolina authorities moved quickly and effectively to catch Roof and did not hesitate to charge him with nine counts of murder. This was South Carolina’s duty and their law enforcement officers have appeared to perform professionally and competently. 

The Department of Justice should be more judicious with its funds and resources. The opportunity costs of a duplicative prosecution takes resources away from crimes that fall more appropriately in the federal purview, such as interstate criminal enterprises and government corruption. Today’s indictment is federal meddling in a case the state already has under control.

Even if some wholly unlikely chain of events leads to Roof’s acquittal, the DOJ could push forward with their prosecution at that time. But, in reality, that isn’t going to happen and no one at DOJ thinks it will. By not waiting for the outcome of the state’s prosecution, the timing strongly suggests the DOJ wants to assume jurisdiction for Roof’s prosecution. Thus, this indictment is an unabashed political move.

While the murders were rightly condemned as a national tragedy, it was a tremendous blow to the community of Charleston and the state as a whole. As such, the primary responsibility for prosecuting Dylann Roof belongs to South Carolina. Neither national grief nor DOJ politics should stand in the way of South Carolina’s prerogative to deliver justice on its own terms.

UPDATE: Shortly after this post went live, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch released a statement on the indictment. Notably, she referred to the state and federal cases as “parallel prosecutions.” But Roof cannot be in two courtrooms at the same time and so one proceeding will have to take place before the other.

It is hard to identify any justice interest served by federal prosecution. Rather, this appears to be for the institutional interests of the Justice Department.