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Criminal Justice Professor Discusses Charleston Shooting Suspect Dylann Roof

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dylann Roof was arraigned yesterday in Charleston. He's charged with murdering nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston after he joined them for an hour of Bible study. The governor of South Carolina has called for the death penalty. We spoke with Professor James Alan Fox, who studies criminal justice at Northeastern University, and asked if he detected any signs in Roof's background that should've signaled a potential for violence.

JAMES ALAN FOX: Certainly, there's reports from friends and even a grandparent about his unusual behavior - scary behavior. He had been arrested apparently a couple times for trespassing, making people uncomfortable. That would not distinguish him from thousands of Americans who are off-putting and certainly is not a reliable, clear-cut warning sign of someone who is about to commit mass murder. There's also lots of talk about, why would someone like that be able to get a gun? Unfortunately, many people who shouldn't have guns do get them. If they don't get them legally, they can certainly borrow them, steal them. And even though gun control might be a good idea, it's not going to prevent mass murder 'cause these guys are very deliberate, and they will get a gun no matter what impediments we put in their way.

SIMON: I think a lot of us have seen the picture of this young man with the emblems of Rhodesia, the old Segregationist Republic and the old South Africa under the apartheid regime. Should people have seen a picture of like this on Facebook and say this is a dangerously unbalanced man?

FOX: Well, you know, often times, teenagers and young adults collect things they think are cool. Doesn't necessarily mean that they are committed to any particular ideology. I mean, even consider, for example, the two shooters at Columbine High School who timed their shooting spree to Hitler's birthday. They kind of were enamored with that symbol of power and that Hitler and the Third Reich represented, as opposed to really being ideologically committed to it. So, I think in cases like this - you see his picture with the jacket and the decals on it - I would hesitate to, unless we have evidence otherwise, to suggest that he was really, deeply committed to these - to such ideology. It may just be that he liked the jacket and thought it was cool.

SIMON: There's been a perception that young men seem to be committing massacres in greater numbers. I mean, I'm trying to remember - has a young woman - has an older man committed a crime like this?

FOX: Typically the mass murderers are middle-aged men who've had a history of frustration and failure to the point that their ability to cope with life's disappointment has become rather thin, and they are externalizing blame and want to punish those who held them back. Generally, a 21-year-old will not have accumulated the kind of frustration in his life to the point where he's ready to commit mass murder and even consider suicide.

SIMON: Do you see anything to suggest an insanity plea in this case?

FOX: No. I would - it's very, very difficult, first of all, to successfully plead insanity in these cases. Generally jury - even if there's compelling evidence that insanity is plausible, juries certainly don't buy it. They look at nine people killed and they believe, not wrongly, but they do believe that someone who will get away with murder if they are found not guilty by reason of insanity. There's nothing here that would suggest that he didn't know what he was doing. And I - an insanity plea, in this case, would in all likelihood fail.

SIMON: What if Dylann Roof's defense attorneys say, yes, he did it, let us plead guilty and he doesn't get the death penalty? Does that put a prosecutor in a hard position?

FOX: Oh, sure it does. The problem that prosecutors have in those situations is, if we don't reach for the death penalty in this case, when nine victims are killed, then how can we ever, in the future, press the death penalty when two people are killed or three people are killed? It's sort of an issue of proportionality.

SIMON: James Alan Fox who is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. Thanks so much for being with us.

FOX: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.