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Buffalo shooter who killed 10 at Tops supermarket to face death penalty in federal case

Feds to seek death penalty against Buffalo gunman
Prosecutors to seek death penalty against Buffalo supermarket gunman 00:28

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against a white supremacist who killed 10 Black people in a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, they said in a court filing Friday. Payton Gendron, 20, is already serving a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole after he pleaded guilty to state charges of murder and hate-motivated domestic terrorism in the 2022 attack.

The Justice Department, in the filing, said that "the United States believes the circumstances … are such that, in the event of a conviction, a sentence of death is justified."

New York does not have capital punishment, but the Justice Department had the option of seeking the death penalty in a separate federal hate crimes case. The gunman had promised to plead guilty in that case if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

In Friday's notice announcing the decision to seek the death penalty, Trini Ross, the U.S. attorney for western New York, cited the substantial planning that went into the shooting, including the choice of location — a Tops Friendly Market in the city's largely Black East Side neighborhood — which she said was meant to "maximize the number of Black victims."

Relatives of the victims had expressed mixed views on whether they thought federal prosecutors should pursue the death penalty. After meeting with prosecutors hours before a Friday hearing in the case, some family members of victims shared their thoughts.

"I'm not necessarily disappointed in the decision. ... It would have satisfied me more knowing he would have spent the rest of his life in prison being surrounded by the population of people he tried to kill," said Mark Talley, whose 63-year-old mother Geraldine Talley was killed.

"I would prefer he spend the rest of his life in prison suffering every day," he added.

Pamela Pritchett, whose 77-year-old mother, Pearl Young, was killed in the attack, said the mood was somber.

"I will be scarred. Everybody, every family, the community of the East Side, we're all gonna be scarred," she said. "For me, my goal is to look at the scar and know that I am healed."

Cariol Horne, 54, places a rose on the fence outside the Tops Friendly Market on July 14, 2022, in Buffalo, New York.
Cariol Horne, 54, places a rose on the fence outside the Tops Friendly Market on July 14, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. AP Photo/Joshua Bessex

Several other family members of victims left without speaking.

"The families are relieved that a decision has been made so the future path has some certainty although no decision can eliminate the pain and suffering they continue to experience," attorney Terrence Connors said in a statement.

Defense attorney Sonya Zoghlin said the gunman's lawyers were "deeply disappointed" with the decision and emphasized that he was 18 when he carried out the massacre.

"Rather than a prolonged and traumatic capital prosecution, the efforts of the federal government would be better spent on combatting the forces that facilitated this terrible crime, including easy access to deadly weapons and the failure of social media companies to moderate the hateful rhetoric and images that circulate online," Zoghlin said in a statement.

On May 14, 2022, the gunman attacked shoppers and workers with a semi-automatic rifle at the supermarket after driving more than 200 miles from his home in rural Conklin, New York.

He chose the business for its location in a predominantly Black neighborhood and livestreamed the massacre from a camera attached to his tactical helmet.

The victims, who ranged in age from 32 to 86, included eight customers, the store security guard and a church deacon who drove shoppers to and from the store with their groceries. Three people were wounded but survived.

The rifle the gunman fired was marked with racial slurs and phrases including "The Great Replacement," a reference to a conspiracy theory that there's a plot to diminish the influence of White people.

The Justice Department has made federal death penalty cases a rarity since the election of President Biden, who opposes capital punishment. This is the first time Attorney General Merrick Garland has authorized a new pursuit of the death penalty. Under his leadership, the Justice Department has permitted the continuation of two capital prosecutions and withdrawn from pursuing death in more than two dozen cases.

Garland instituted a moratorium on federal executions in 2021 pending a review of procedures. Although the moratorium does not prevent prosecutors from seeking death sentences, the Justice Department has done so sparingly.

It successfully sought the death penalty for a antisemitic gunman who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, which had been authorized as a death penalty case before Garland became attorney general. It also went ahead last year with an effort to get the death sentence against an Islamic extremist who killed eight people on a New York City bike path, though a lack of a unanimous jury meant that prosecution resulted in a life sentence.

The Justice Department has declined to pursue the death penalty in other mass killings. It passed on seeking the execution of a gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

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