The man accused of killing 10 people and wounding three in a racist rampage in Buffalo, N.Y., was charged with federal hate crimes that carry a potential death penalty.
Payton Gendron, who allegedly used an AR-15 assault-style rifle during the May 14 attack in a supermarket, was already facing the possibility of life in prison if convicted, after becoming the first person in the state to be charged with domestic terrorism motivated by hate. The new, federal charges comprise 26 counts of hate crimes and firearms offenses.
The charges were filed on Wednesday in federal court in Buffalo as Attorney General Merrick Garland traveled to the city to meet with some 40 survivors and family members of the victims. Visiting a memorial at the site of the massacre, he added an armful of white roses to the many bouquets and photos of slain shoppers already there.
Gendron, a White 18-year-old, did research to find a neighborhood with a large Black population and drove hours to get there, prosecutors claim. All 10 who died were African American.
Gendron has pleaded not guilty to the state charges. He is scheduled to make an initial court appearance on the federal charges on Thursday morning.
At a news conference, Garland wouldn’t say whether the Justice Department would seek the death penalty for Gendron. He said the department would make that decision later, including through consultation with family members.
The Justice Department hasn’t yet sought the death penalty in any cases on Garland’s watch. Pursuing a capital sentence is a legally and politically delicate act, especially in a Democratic administration, since many Democrats oppose capital punishment.
Garland said at the conference that the department has “both a legal and a moral obligation” to fight hate crimes and discrimination and noted that it was created in the 1870s, during Reconstruction, to protect Black people from White supremacist attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the civil rights division she heads and the department as a whole “will not stand by idly in the fight against White supremacist violence.”
Wednesday’s charges come as President Joe Biden’s administration makes a renewed push for legislation to restrict the purchase of assault-style weapons by people who have been flagged as risks, after the Buffalo shooting and one 10 days later at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Momentum for legislation picked up this week as a group of U.S. senators announced a deal on a package of measures including federal funds to boost mental health services and school safety, some enhanced background checks for younger gun buyers and money to help states implement red flag laws. The package has early support from 10 Senate Republicans, the minimum needed to advance legislation in the evenly divided chamber if all 50 Democrats are on board.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said the greatest domestic threat currently comes from racist violent extremism and from White nationalism in particular. The Justice Department had said it was investigating the Buffalo shooting “as a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism.”