The Justice Department on Wednesday charged Payton Gendron, 18, with 26 hate-crime counts and a firearm offense in the mass shooting that killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store last month. The federal charges could make Gendron eligible for the death penalty.
The charges were announced as Attorney General Merrick Garland met with dozens of survivors of the May 14 shooting and family members of those who were slain.
In an 11-page criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the FBI’s lead investigator wrote that the evidence showed there is probable cause that Gendron shot the 11 Black victims at the Tops Friendly Markets because of “their actual and perceived race and color” and shot two white victims while trying to harm the others.
Two weeks ago, a state grand jury indicted Gendron on 25 state counts, including domestic terrorism and murder as a hate crime. Before the rampage, investigators say, Gendron had said and written that he subscribed to a racist ideology called the “great replacement” theory.
Civil rights advocates praised the Justice Department for moving quickly on the case.
“If there was ever a case when hate crimes charges were appropriate, this was the one,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “What we so often see is federal prosecutors waiting to see what plays out on the state and local level. We saw the opposite here with the parallel investigations.”
Garland, along with several top deputies, gathered privately with about 40 local residents at the Apollo Media Center in Buffalo to provide an update on the Justice Department’s federal civil rights investigation.
He also laid a bouquet of white roses at a memorial for the victims near the Tops market, on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Landon Street.
Garland was joined in the meeting by Trini Ross, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York; Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta; Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the civil rights division; and Paul Abbate, deputy director of the FBI.
The federal case against Gendron could present a tricky situation for Garland, who has placed a moratorium on executions in federal cases while the department reviews regulations on the death penalty made during the Trump administration.
Some civil rights groups have pressured the Biden administration to abolish capital punishment, and Hewitt said he has gotten pressure from some advocates to call on Garland not to pursue the death penalty in the Buffalo shooting.
He said Garland has not discussed the issue with advocates in conversations about the Buffalo mass-shooting investigation.
“I heard what they have to say. It’s very complicated,” Hewitt said. “But the bigger story here is not whether [the Buffalo gunman] is charged with a capital offense or put to death – but the fact that he was charged with a hate crime. The mirror was held up to him. Hate crimes themselves are message crimes. The prosecution of such have to send messages too.”