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Prosecutors to seek death penalty for white supremacist who killed 10 at Buffalo supermarket

By CAROLYN THOMPSON
Associated Press

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.

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 (320 kilometers) 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.

Federal death penalty cases have become a rarity since the election of Biden, a Democrat who opposes capital punishment. Under the leadership of Attorney General Merrick Garland, 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 an antisemitic gunman who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, though that attack was authorized as a death penalty case before Garland took office. 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, including against the gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

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.”

Gendron did not appear at a status conference held Friday afternoon.

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Associated Press writers Jake Offenhartz in New York and Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.

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