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Federal charges filed in Buffalo mass shooting; no decision on pursuing death penalty

US Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared in Buffalo Wednesday, June 15, 2022 to announce federal charges against the suspect in the May 14 mass shooting on Jefferson Avenue. At his side is US Attorney Trini Ross. Garland also met with family members of shooting victims during his visit.
Michael Mroziak
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks in Buffalo June 15, 2022 to announce federal charges against the suspect in the May 14 mass shooting on Jefferson Avenue. At his side is US Attorney Trini Ross.

Federal charges have been filed against the man accused of carrying out last month’s mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared in Buffalo Wednesday to personally announce the charges.

Under the federal criminal complaint, 18-year-old Payton Gendron of Conklin, New York is charged with 10 counts of a Hate Crime Resulting in Death, three counts of a Hate Crime Involving Bodily Injury and Attempt to Kill, 10 counts of Use of a Firearm to Commit Murder During and in Relation to a Violent Crime, and three counts of Discharge of a Firearm During and in Relation to a Violent Crime.

“The affidavit outlines how the defendant prepared for months to carry out this attack,” Garland said. “It alleges that he selected a target in this ZIP code, because it has the highest percentage of Black people close enough to where he lives. He selected the Tops store, because it is where a high percentage and high density of Black people can be found. And he made a map of the inside of the Tops store, and ‘decided the best plan of attack for the highest chance of success.’ The affidavit also notes that the defendant chronicle this plan on his Discord messaging account in the months leading up to the attack.

“Citing that account, the affidavit alleges that defendant wrote about his acquisition of firearms and other supplies for the attack and traveled to Tops on multiple occasions, to sketch the interior of the store, count the number of Black people present and observe the presence of Black security guards.”

Gendron is already held without bail for state charges related to the attack, which prosecutors say was motivated by racial hate. Garland, during his local news conference, suggested that the defendant fired an estimated 60 shots during the attacks and, after spotting a wounded white security guard, apologized to that victim before carrying on the shootings.

When the shooting was stopped and the suspect was in custody, ten people were dead and three people wounded.

“We must prove these allegations. And we intend to do so,” said Trini Ross, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York. “Since the day of this attack, we have worked tirelessly to respond and we will continue to respond until this case is concluded.

“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.”

Prior to speaking with news media, Garland joined Ross and other federal officials in a private meeting with family of victims. The family of Ruth Whitfield was among them. Her son, Garnell, said they were pleased to see the attorney general come to Buffalo to meet with them. He says they are seeking justice not only for their mother, but for all the victims.

“We all want justice. We want equity. We want to be treated like human beings,” he said. “That's what we want, not just for us, not just for our mother, but for this for all of us as Americans. I mean these people were Americans. They weren't just Black, they were Americans. And it's about time they get treated as such.”

Garland and others within his office noted that one of the initial roles of the U.S. Department of Justice, when founded 150 years ago, was to protect Black people from violence by white supremacists.

“More than 150 years later, white supremacists are still terrorizing Black Americans and other communities of color, and the Justice Department will not tolerate it,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “The Justice Department's top priority is holding accountable those who commit these heinous acts. But we must all continue to combat hate and discrimination and all of its forms, and address them before they ever escalate to violence. Every community deserves to feel safe and protected.”

At the federal level, the death penalty is an option. But when asked if he’d approve it, Garland suggested several steps needed to be taken before a decision would be made.

“This is a death penalty eligible crime. The Justice Department has a series of procedures as follows. First, of course, there has to be an indictment. After the indictment, then the regulatory procedures will be followed. And the families and the survivors will be consulted,” he replied.

Outside the news conference, Garnell Whitfield was asked if his family supported the death penalty for their mother’s killer.

“We're not talking about the death penalty or any penalty at all right now. We're just looking for justice,” he said. “We’re looking for them to prosecute this case, and to leave no stone unturned and, like they said, to make sure that anybody associated with this guy, or white supremacy, that we pull the covers off of them, and expose them for who they are, for what they are, and deal with them appropriately. So, as far as what the outcome is going to be, death penalty or not, I'm not really concerned about that. That's not for us to be talking about right now.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.