Dylann Roof’s federal death penalty trial on charges of killing nine African-Americans at a Charleston Bible study will capture headlines nationwide when it starts in early December.
But some Columbia area groups hope to start a community conversation on the death penalty later this week.
Roof is not characteristic of most inmates on death rows nationwide, according to criminal justice advocates’ statistics.
Of the 2,905 death-row inmates nationwide as of July 1, 58 percent were minorities while 42 percent – like Roof – were white, according to the NAACP’s Death Row U.S.A. project.
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Of those charged with murder in 2015, 37 percent were black, 30 percent were white and 2 percent were other, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The race of the remaining suspects, 31 percent, was not known.)
Critics say the mismatch between the number of minorities charged with murder and sentenced to death reflects injustice in the criminal system.
There is a “horrible tinge of racism throughout the system that we’ve got to really dig into and start talking about if it’s going to change,” said Mandy Medlock of the nonprofit Justice 360 group, which focuses on equality in death penalty cases.
During the next month, Columbia area activists will focus on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system during a series of community conversations that start at 3 p.m. Saturday at the main Richland Library.
Justice 360 and the library are partnering to host the forums, which will include a viewing of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk. In addition, free copies of Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” will be available.
The community conversations will culminate with an appearance from 6-9 p.m. Nov. 17 by Stevenson at The Township.
Stevenson’s 2012 TED talk, which has been viewed more than 3.2 million times, focuses on incarceration and the death penalty in the United States.
In his TED Talk, Stevenson said there is despair in poor communities and communities of color because of high incarceration rates.
“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson said in his talk. “Wealth – not culpability – shapes outcomes.”
The discussion of the death penalty is timely because of Roof’s upcoming trial.
Most S.C. African-Americans oppose the death penalty, and a majority of black South Carolinians say Roof should be sentenced to life without parole – not death – if he is found guilty, according to a University of South Carolina poll.
Before Stevenson’s Columbia talk, smaller gatherings will hold conversations about injustice, said Richland Library spokesperson Tamara King. In addition, the library’s book clubs will discuss “Just Mercy.”
Moderators from the S.C. State Museum, which recently held an exhibit about racial tolerance, trained Richland Library staff on how to facilitate the conversations, King said.
“Social justice is a topic right now that is important and (conversations are) necessary to be had.”
Let’s Talk Justice forums
The will host the Let’s Talk Justice Forums on these dates in October and November:
3 p.m. Saturday: Richland Library Main
6 p.m. Oct. 20: Cecil Tillis Center
6 p.m. Oct. 27: Richland Library North Main
6 p.m. Oct. 27: Jerusalem Baptist Church, Hopkins
Watch a preview of the documentary series “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” which focuses on black America since 1965. A panel discussion will follow the screening to focus on diverse, local perspectives. 3 p.m. Nov. 13, Richland Library Main
‘Just Mercy’ book discussions
Book clubs at the library also will be discussing Stevenson’s book.
7 p.m. Nov. 8 at Richland Library St. Andrews
6:30 p.m. Nov. 29 at Richland Library North Main
An evening with justice advocate Bryan Stevenson
A conversation on race, reconciliation and the path forward with lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
When: 6-9 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: The Township, 1703 Taylor St.