Federal prosecutors 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.
The decision marks the first time that President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has authorized a new pursuit of the death penalty.
Gendron drove more than 200 miles from his home in rural Conklin, New York, to a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo’s largely Black East Side neighborhood, where he shot eight supermarket 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.
In court papers 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, which she said was meant to “maximize the number of Black victims.”
Relatives of the victims, who ranged in age from 32 to 86, have 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.
In a joint statement, attorneys for some of victims’ relatives said the decision “provides a pathway to both relief and a measure of closure for the victims and their families.”
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.
Gendron carried out his attack on May 14, 2022, using a semi-automatic 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.
Prosecutors met Friday with several family members of victims before the decision to seek the death penalty was made public.
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.”