By Carolyn Thompson, The Associated Press on January 12, 2024.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) – Federal prosecutors said Friday that they will seek the death penalty against a white supremacist who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket.
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.
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. Gendron had promised to plead guilty in that case if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
In a 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. Mark Talley, whose 63-year-old mother, Geraldine Talley, was killed, said he “wasn’t necessarily disappointed” by the decision, even if he would have preferred Gendron spend his life behind bars.
“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,” Talley said.
Before the decision was announced, several family members of victims met with prosecutors.
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.”
Several other family members of victims left without speaking to reporters.
An attorney for Gendron, Sonya Zoghlin, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the government’s decision to seek the death penalty, noting that her client was 18 at the time of the shooting.
“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.
During an unrelated news briefing, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she supports the federal government’s decision, noting that the victims were targeted because of their race.
The Justice Department has made federal death penalty cases a rarity since the election of President Joe Biden, a Democrat 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.
On May 14, 2022, Gendron attacked shoppers and workers with a semi-automatic rifle at the supermarket after driving more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) 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 dead, 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 Gendron 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.
Associated Press writers Jake Offenhartz in New York and Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.