Buffalo supermarket shooter who killed 10 Black victims pleads guilty to murder charges

The white gunman who massacred 10 Black shoppers and workers at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., pleaded guilty Monday to murder and hate-motivated terrorism charges, guaranteeing that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

White shooter who targeted Black victims still faces federal charges that could lead to death penalty

Flowers are seen at the side of a parking lot, with a Tops grocery store in the distance.
Balloons and flowers are seen as part of a makeshift memorial to the victims the day after the shooting. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

The white gunman who massacred 10 Black shoppers and workers at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket pleaded guilty Monday to murder and hate-motivated terrorism charges, guaranteeing that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Payton Gendron, 19, entered the plea Monday in a courthouse roughly three kilometres from the grocery store where he used a semiautomatic rifle and body armour to carry out the assault.

He pleaded guilty to all the charges in the grand jury indictment, including murder, murder as a hate crime and hate-motivated domestic terrorism, which carries an automatic sentence of life without parole. Gendron also pleaded guilty to wounding three people who survived the May attack.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 15.

Gendron, who was handcuffed and wore an orange jumpsuit, showed little emotion through the 45-minute proceeding, just occasionally licking and clenching his lips. He answered "Yes" and "Guilty" as the judge referred to each victim by name and asked whether he killed each victim because of their race.

Immediate relatives of the victims were joined by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the police commissioner in the gallery. Many of the relatives appeared to be crying, dabbing their eyes and sniffling. The judge urged calm as the proceedings began. "I understand this is a momentous and tremendously emotional event," Judge Susan Eagan said.

A memorial for the shooting victims is shown outside Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo on July 14. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said it was the first time a hate-motivated domestic terrorism conviction had been secured in the state. "Hopefully the legal closure will help the grieving process," said Flynn.

The plea comes after recent deadly attacks at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., at a gay club in Colorado and at the University of Virginia, leading to concerns that many Americans may be becoming desensitized to mass shootings.

Just days after Gendron's rampage in Buffalo, a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas.

Weapon obtained legally, but modified

Gendron previously pleaded not guilty to separate federal hate crime charges that could result in a death sentence if he is convicted. The U.S. Justice Department has not said whether it will seek capital punishment.

Gendron used a legally purchased AR-15 style rifle in his attack on the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, though Flynn said he illegally modified the weapon to enable it to fire more rounds of ammunition. Wearing body armour, Gendron livestreamed from a helmet camera as he shot store employees and shoppers.

Payton Gendron is led into the courtroom for a hearing at Erie County Court in Buffalo on May 19. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

"This critical step represents a condemnation of the racist ideology that fuelled his horrific actions on May 14," said Gendron's lawyer, Brian Parker. "It is our hope that a final resolution of the state charges will help in some small way to keep the focus on the needs of the victims and the community."

Those killed ranged in age from 32 to 86 and included an armed security guard who died trying to protect customers, a church deacon and the mother of a former Buffalo fire commissioner.

White supremacy was Gendron's motive. In documents posted online just before the attack, he said he had picked the store, about a three-hour drive from his home in Conklin, N.Y., because it was in a predominantly Black neighbourhood.

He said he was motivated by a belief in a massive conspiracy to dilute the power of white people by "replacing" them in the U.S. with people of colour.

A painting titled Hope by Senia Che is shown on July 14, when Tops Friendly Market reopened. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News/The Associated Press)

Gendron surrendered after police confronted him as he emerged from the store.

Relatives of the victims called on Congress to address white supremacy and gun violence through legislation. U.S. President Joe Biden in the summer signed the most significant federal gun control legislation in several years.

 A food summit organized by Buffalo-based attorney and activist Kevin Gaughan last month focused on closing the "grocery gap" laid bare by the attack on the neighbourhood's only supermarket. The supermarket was closed for two months following the attack.