The man accused of killing 22 people and wounding 23 more in a shooting that targeted Mexicans in the border city of El Paso, Texas, has been charged with federal hate crimes.
Patrick Crusius, 21, has been charged with 90 counts under federal hate crime and firearms laws for his role in the Aug. 3 shooting authorities said was aimed at scaring Hispanics into leaving the United States, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday.
Federal prosecutors announced the charges against Crusius of Allen, Texas, at a news conference in El Paso. The Department of Justice will consult with defense attorneys and victims' families before deciding if they will pursue the death penalty. Ultimately, the decision is up to Attorney General William Barr.
The DOJ will prosecute on a parallel track with state officials. Crusius faces the death penalty on a state capital murder charge to which he pleaded not guilty last year.
Bringing hate crime charges show members of targeted communities that "they are valued, that their protection matters, and then we will protect them and their rights," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ Civil Rights Division. "People in our nation have the right to go to a store on a Saturday morning without fear that they will be shot and killed because of who they are, or where they're from," Dreiband said.
The shooting happened at a time when immigration officials were trying to manage a crush of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and there was political battle over their treatment. El Paso was the epicenter of the influx. President Trump has made cracking down on immigration a hallmark of his administration and the polarizing topic makes headlines around the world.
Eight Mexican nationals were among the victims, and the indictment accuses Crusius of targeting people because of their "actual and perceived national origin." That Walmart is popular with shoppers from nearby Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just on the other side of the Rio Grande from El Paso.
In a statement issued Thursday evening, Crusius' family said it was aware of the indictment and has been and continues to be mindful of "the immense pain and suffering of all those affected and touched by this tragedy." Beyond that, the family said it would make no comment.
City Council member Cassandra Hernandez, whose district includes the Walmart, said the announcement was part of the healing process for El Pasoans and the victims. The federal indictment comes as El Paso marks the six-month anniversary of the shooting.
The federal grand jury that indicted Crusius found his alleged crimes came "after substantial planning and premeditation." He bought a Romanian-made AK-47-style rifle and 1,000 rounds of hollow-point ammunition online more than six weeks before he drove 10 hours overnight from his grandparents' house in a Dallas suburb to El Paso to carry out the attack, according to the indictment.
Crusius has been held without bond since the shooting and kept isolated from other prisoners, on suicide watch for at least two months after the shooting.
Crusius surrendered to police after the attack, saying, "I'm the shooter," and that he was targeting Mexicans, according to an arrest warrant.
In court documents, prosecutors said Crusius published a screed online shortly before the shooting that said it was "in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas." It cited, as inspiration, a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed scores of Muslim residents of that country.
The document parroted some of Mr. Trump's immigration policy rhetoric. El Paso residents such as former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, accused Mr. Trump of promoting harmful stereotypes and fueling the idea that the increase in migrant crossings was a coordinated "invasion" by Latinos. The president has denied inciting violence.
The hate charges being announced Thursday are the latest by federal prosecutors following high-profile violent incidents.