Hey journalists. Have you ever watched the local news coverage of a news event in which you -- as a citizen, as opposed to being there as a reporter -- were an active participant?
This has happened to me a few times, primarily when my own local church gets involved in some kind of cause. That's what happened long ago in Charlotte when I took part in a midnight prayer vigil in opposition to North Carolina's use of the death penalty. Frequent readers of this blog over the years are probably aware that I am totally opposed to the death penalty, just as I am opposed to abortion and euthanasia.
This particular event in my past provides the background for my comments on the Washington Post story about the death penalty and the Dylann Roof case down in South Carolina. The headline: "What to expect as prosecutors try to persuade jurors to sentence Dylann Roof to death."
This story ran, for some reason, under a "National Security" header.
Now, our own Bobby Ross Jr. has tons lots of critiques of media coverage linked to the role that religious faith -- especially concepts of grace and forgiveness -- have played in events surrounding this crime and its aftermath. Click here, please, to look through some of that. It's really hard to cover stories linked to the death penalty without getting into religious territory. This is especially true in the American heartland.
This brings me back to that midnight prayer vigil in Charlotte, which took place in an Episcopal church near downtown. The church sanctuary and nave were dark -- candles only, except for a reader's light on the pulpit -- when the television crew entered. People were praying silently and then, every 10 minutes or so, there would be readings from scripture.
In that era, portable light rigs for television cameras were really outrageous. Then the lights were on the camera guy made him look like an approaching UFO as he walked -- I am not joking -- down the center aisle filming people praying in the candlelight. He kept going until he was past the pulpit and up near the altar, shining those glaring lights back into everyone's eyes during a Bible reading.
People were rather upset. There we were on our knees praying for the state not to use the death penalty and, well, we pretty much wanted to kill that camera guy with a barrage of prayerbooks.
A reporter interviewed one or two people and then the TV team left. The resulting report said, basically, that a group of liberal activists met in an Episcopal church to once again call for, yada, yada, yada.
The facts were much more interesting and complex. That vigil drew quite a few pro-life people from conservative traditions -- as in Baptists, Catholics, mainline black churches, etc. There were several people there from Episcopalians For Life. Why did the reporter assume that everyone there was a "liberal," whatever that means in this context? Why not wait until the service is over and talk to more people?
This brings me to the Post report about the Roof case. Who did members of this team talk to, in this case? Here is the overture of this "National Security" story:
Federal prosecutors on Wednesday will begin their bid to convince jurors that Dylann Roof, the man who gunned down nine parishioners in historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, S.C., in hopes of starting a race war, should be sentenced to death.
Roof, 22, was convicted last month of federal hate crimes, and because prosecutors are seeking a death sentence, the same men and women who declared him guilty of 33 criminal charges must now decide his punishment. The penalty phase of any trial in which a person’s life is on the line is difficult to forecast, but in Roof’s case, it is especially hard to predict.
Roof has asked that the lawyers who worked on his behalf during the trial’s guilt phase no longer represent him, apparently because of a disagreement over whether mental health evidence should be offered. He reportedly plans to offer an opening statement, although he has said he does not plan to offer evidence or call witnesses. On Monday, at the request of Roof’s former defense attorney, a judge conducted a nonpublic hearing to assess Roof’s competence. Roof was deemed competent to stand trial and represent himself, according to a judge’s order. The start of the penalty phase, originally set for Tuesday, was pushed back a day.
Over the next few days, Roof could question the witnesses called by prosecutors, including the relatives of those he killed. Or he could mostly remain silent.
Will jurors call for the death penalty? Will some of the witnesses?
The bottom line: This story approaches this topic in terms of legal issues alone.
There is no indication that, for these jurors, there might be moral and even religious issues involved in their decision, even though -- at ever step of this case -- there have been remarkable faith-based remarks made by witnesses and relatives of the victims, etc. After all, Roof has admitted that he gunned down people during a church Bible study in a historic, and very symbolic, church.
The story does note that there will be debates about the death penalty in this case. It also notes relevant details about how this case fits into existing laws.
Jurors have only two options: sentence Roof to life in prison without the possibility of release or consign him to die. Prosecutors will set out to convince them that the case warrants the most severe penalty in the American justice system. The Justice Department is seeking a death sentence for more than half of the 33 counts Roof was convicted of. ...
The Justice Department has executed only three inmates in the modern death penalty era, and the last such execution was in 2003.
When they revealed to the court in May that they would seek the death penalty -- a decision that was opposed even by Bill Nettles, then the U.S. attorney in South Carolina, and Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for the civil rights division -- prosecutors highlighted Roof’s substantial planning and premeditation of the crime, his racial motivation, his lack of remorse and the vulnerability of his victims. The federal death penalty statute says that the punishment is more warranted when a victim is “particularly vulnerable” because of being notably young or old; three of the Mother Emanuel victims were between the ages of 70 and 87.
As a story about the legal questions, this Post offering is quite complete. There seems to be an assumption here that the question is whether the jurors will accept the death penalty in this case -- with no questions raised about the use of the death penalty, period.
I wondered if potential jurors were screened on this issue. Were people with moral and religious doubts or convictions about the death penalty eliminated at that point? That might be worth a sentence or two in this story.
But most of all, I wondered what happened to the other religious elements of this story. Can you imagine the details of this faith-drenched case being discussed without someone talking about religious debates about the death penalty, itself? Have Post editors considered involving a religion-beat specialist in the coverage of this trial and its results?
When it comes time for jurors to make a decision on this matter -- in this trial and in the state trial to come -- will the legal and political details be the only things that matter? Or, when talking about the death penalty, even deep in the Bible Belt, are the "legal" and "political" issues the only things that are "real"?
One more question: Did members of the Post team -- the "National Security" team, I guess -- talk to anyone involved in the Mother Emanuel story other than lawyers and state officials?
You know that old saying: If you are a carpenter and you have a hammer in your hand, the whole world looks like a nail. Maybe the Post management team needs to consider assigning a religion-beat reporter to the Roof death-penalty story, as well as reporters trained to smash political nails.
In other words, it's time to talk to a few more people who are involved in this -- since Day 1 -- faith-soaked story. Those themes are relevant in the death-penalty coverage.
Death penalty cases almost always raise moral and religious questions, questions that defy simple political labels. I find it hard to believe that, for the families of Roof's victims, this is a "secular" and "legal" story and that's that.