BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The white gunman who killed 10 Black people in a racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket was charged Wednesday with federal hate crimes that could potentially carry a death penalty.
The criminal complaint filed Wednesday against Payton Gendron coincided with a visit to Buffalo by Attorney General Merrick Garland. He met with the families of the people who were killed and placed a bouquet of white flowers at a memorial outside the Tops Friendly Market, which has been closed since the May 14 attack.
“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 color of their skin,” Garland said at a news conference.
Garland, who halted federal executions last year, did not rule out seeking the death penalty against Gendron, 18. He said “families and the survivors will be consulted” as the Justice Department weighs whether to seek capital punishment.
The federal hate crimes case is based partly on documents in which Gendron laid out his radical, racist worldview and extensive preparation for the attack, some of which he posted online and shared with a small group of people shortly before he started shooting.
FBI agents executing a search warrant at Gendron’s home found a note in which he apologized to his family and wrote he “had to commit this attack” because he cares “for the future of the White race,” according to an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint.
Three children of 86-year-old victim Ruth Whitfield said they told Garland at their private meeting that they wanted to make sure he didn’t view the Buffalo shooting “as a singular case.”
“This is a problem throughout America,” said one son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr.
“It doesn’t stop with justice for our mother and the other nine victims. It’s how do we prevent these horrific crimes from happening, from breaking the hearts of other families,” said another son, Raymond Whitfield.
Gendron’s attorney, Brian Parker, declined to comment.
So far, the evidence made public against Gendron suggests he acted alone, but Garland and Deputy FBI Director Paul Abbate said investigators were examining the gunman's communications with others prior to the shooting.
About 30 minutes before he opened fire, Gendron invited a small group of people to see his plans for the attack, which he then broadcast live on social media. It wasn’t clear if any of the people who accessed Gendron’s diary or saw his livestream did anything to alert authorities.
In his writings, Gendron embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about a plot to diminish white Americans’ power and “replace” them with people of color, through immigration and other means.
The posts detail months of reconnaissance, demographic research and shooting practice for an attack aimed at scaring everyone who isn’t white and Christian into leaving the country.
Gendron drove more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) from his home in a nearly all-white town near the New York-Pennsylvania border to a predominantly Black part of Buffalo. There, authorities say, he fired approximately 60 shots at shoppers and workers with a semiautomatic rifle.
Three wounded people — one Black, two white — survived. Video of the assault showed Gendron momentarily holding his fire to apologize to a white store employee after shooting him in the leg. Gendron surrendered to police as he exited the supermarket.
Gendron wrote racial slurs and statements including, “Here’s your reparations!” on his rifle, the affidavit said.
Gendron was already facing a mandatory life sentence without parole if convicted on previously filed state charges. He pleaded not guilty to a domestic terrorism charge, including hate-motivated domestic terrorism and murder.
The federal case is likely to present a quandary for Garland, who has vowed to aggressively prosecute civil rights cases but also instituted a moratorium on federal executions last year after an unprecedented run of capital punishment at the end of the Trump administration.
The moratorium halts the Bureau of Prisons from carrying out any executions as the Justice Department conducts a policy review. But the memo does not prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, a decision that ultimately will fall to Garland.
President Joe Biden has said he opposes the death penalty and his team vowed he would take action to stop its use while in office.
In the aftermath of the Buffalo attack, and another deadly mass shooting committed by an 18-year-old at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, New York lawmakers banned the sale of semiautomatic rifles to anyone under age 21.
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.
Garland on Wednesday endorsed changing federal law to raise the age for purchasing some types of rifles.
“The Justice Department agrees with the president that 18-year-olds should not be able to purchase a gun like this,” Garland said.
Gendron was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning on the federal charges.
“This process may not be as fast as some would hope, but it will be thorough, it will be fair, it will be comprehensive and it will reflect what is best about our community and about democracy,” said U.S. Attorney Trini Ross, a Buffalo native.
AP reporter Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.