Federal charges for accused in Buffalo mass shooting raise death penalty possibility

The white man accused of killing 10 Black people in a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket was charged Wednesday with federal hate crimes and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Accused has previously been charged by State of New York, which does not have death penalty

People observe a moment of silence for the victims of the Buffalo supermarket shooting outside the Tops Friendly Market on May 21. The U.S. attorney general said Wednesday that families of the shooting victims will be consulted in the decision about whether to seek the death penalty. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

The white man accused of killing 10 Black people in a gun attack at a Buffalo supermarket was charged Wednesday with federal hate crimes and could face the death penalty if convicted.

The criminal complaint filed Wednesday against Payton Gendron coincided with a visit to Buffalo by Attorney General Merrick Garland. The attorney general was expected to address the federal charges and meet with the families of the people who were killed.

"No one in this country should have to live in fear that they will go to work or shop at a grocery store and will be attacked by someone who hates them because of the colour of their skin," Garland said at a news conference addressing the federal charges.

Garland did not rule out seeking the death penalty, saying the department would follow its procedures for weighing whether to seek such a punishment and that the "families and the survivors will be consulted" in that process.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland visits the Tops Friendly Market grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The store was the site of a mass shooting in which 10 Black people were killed on May 14. Garland was in Buffalo to announce federal hate crime charges against the 18-year-old shooter, Payton Gendron. (Carolyn Thompson/The Associated Press)

Garland earlier placed a bouquet of white flowers tied with a yellow ribbon at a memorial to the victims outside the store, which has been shuttered since the attack.

The accused shooter is already facing a mandatory life sentence without parole if convicted on previously filed state charges in the May 14 rampage at Tops Friendly Market.

New York's last execution was nearly 60 years ago. In 2004 the New York Court of Appeal ruled the death penalty violated the state constitution, and eventually any existing death sentences were commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

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Federal moratorium currently in place

Garland instituted a moratorium on federal executions last year after an unprecedented run of capital punishment at the end of the Trump administration.

The moratorium put in place in July 2021 halts the Bureau of Prisons from carrying out any executions.

Federal executions have been halted as the Justice Department conducts a review of its policies and procedures for capital punishment.

The review, which is ongoing, comes after 13 people were executed at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., between July 2020 and January 2021.

But the memo does not prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty — a decision that ultimately will fall to Garland — and the Biden administration has previously asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the original death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.

President Joe Biden has said he opposes the death penalty.

While Biden was vice-president, the Justice Department during Barack Obama's presidency sought the death penalty for a white supremacist accused of killing nine African Americans at a South Carolina church.

Dylann Roof was convicted and sentenced to death in January 2017.

Accused's journals part of evidence

The federal hate crimes case is based partly on documents agents found at the accused's Conklin, N.Y., home. In those documents, he laid out his radical, racist worldview and extensive preparation for the attack, some of which he posted online shortly before he started shooting.

The affidavit also includes detailed accounts of the accused's plot to attack the store, which he documented in detail in an online diary, and the attack itself, which he live streamed on social media.

In his writings, the accused embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about a plot to diminish white Americans' power and "replace" them with people of colour, through immigration and other means.

He drove more than 320 kilometres from his home in a nearly all-white town near the New York-Pennsylvania border to a predominantly Black part of Buffalo. While there, he wore body armour and used an AR-15-style rifle, live streaming the attack.

Three people he wounded — one Black, two white — survived the attack.

Police said the 18-year-old surrendered to them as he exited the supermarket.

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Gendron has pleaded not guilty to a state domestic terrorism charge, including hate-motivated domestic terrorism and murder.

Ten days after the attack in Buffalo, another 18-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, killing 19 children and two teachers.

Soon after, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed 10 public safety-related bills, including one prohibiting New Yorkers under age 21 from buying semi-automatic rifles and another that revised the state's "red flag" law, which allows courts to temporarily take away guns from people who might be a threat to themselves or others.

The U.S. Senate followed on June 12 with a bipartisan agreement on more modest federal gun curbs and stepped-up efforts to improve school safety and mental health programs.

With files from CBC News