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Tops shooter pleads guilty to state charges

Payton Gendron pleaded guilty to all state charges against him in the mass shooting.
Credit: WGRZ2
Peyton Gendron

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The 19-year-old gunman who carried out the racially motivated mass shooting at the Tops grocery store on Jefferson Avenue has pleaded guilty to 15 state charges against him. 

The six-month wait for a community struck by unimaginable tragedy culminated Monday in a  guilty plea by the admitted Tops shooter Payton Gendron, who admitted to all state counts, including 

  • One count of Domestic Act of Terrorism Motivated by Hate in the First Degree (Class “A-I” felony)
  • Ten counts of Murder in the First Degree (Class “A-I” felonies)
  • Three counts of Attempted Murder in the Second Degree as a Hate Crime (Class “A-I” felonies)
  • One count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree (Class “C” violent felony)

Gendron killed 10 Black people and injured three others in the May 14 shooting. 

Gendron, who was handcuffed and wore an orange jumpsuit, showed little emotion through the 45-minute proceeding, just occasionally licking and clenching his lips. He answered “yes” and “guilty" as the judge referred to each victim by name and asked whether he killed each victim because of their race.

 Immediate relatives of the victims were joined by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the police commissioner in the gallery. Many of the relatives appeared to be crying, dabbing their eyes and sniffling. The judge urged calm as the proceedings began. “I understand this is a momentous and tremendously emotional event,” Judge Susan Eagan said.

“Swift justice," is how Erie County District Attorney John Flynn described the result, noting that it's the first time anyone in the state of New York has been convicted of the hate-motivated terrorism charge.

Flynn said the crimes were proven beyond a doubt through surveillance video and Gendron’s own helmet camera, which produced images he streamed live during the shootings, as well as his own writings and statements, Flynn said. “Their screams of fear and confusion are heard on the defendant’s camera.”

Every victim was targeted because of their race, Flynn said, noting that Gendron spared and even apologized to a white person during the attack. He modified a rifle into an illegal assault weapon so that he could kill as many African Americans, in as short a period of time, as he could, Flynn said.

“Ten seats were empty for Thanksgiving dinner in Buffalo this year and they will stay empty this Christmas. These mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons were all killed for the simple act of grocery shopping while Black. Hate filled this young man’s heart. It compelled him to put on body armor, drive to that Tops, and murder those 10 people. There is no defense for that. There is no legal precedent to explain this away. You cannot litigate a justification for white supremacy," said Rev. Al Sharpton.

2 On Your Side legal analyst Paul Cambria says the plea could be an attempt to avoid the death penalty in the federal case, which is still pending.

“They may hope that such an admission is a mitigating factor if you will,” criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria said.

“They could then go to the panel that makes the decision for the Department of Justice as to whether or not they seek the death penalty, and they could say, ‘We've admitted it and everything. We're not going to have to put the families through trial and so on.’”

The guilty plea comes just four months after Gendron pled not guilty to federal hate crime charges punishable by the death penalty.

But, according to legal experts, instead of avoiding a death sentence, Monday’s admission of guilt could actually be what causes it.

“The state plea is an admission,” Cambria said. “The admission can be used on the federal side to, in fact, convict him of a capital offense, so the judge has a tough decision here. The judge has to make it very clear to the defendant that he may very well be making an admission that could get him the death penalty on the federal side.”

But for victims’ family members like Garnell Whitfield, regardless of the news, it still doesn’t bring his mother back.

“I'm not satisfied at all,” Whitfield said. “I mean, there is no satisfaction coming. Satisfaction is not a part of this. My mother's gone. That doesn't even enter into the picture.”

(Editor's note:  This story contains reporting from Carolyn Thompson with the Associated Press)

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