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Months after Buffalo massacre, families still split on death penalty

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 1:34 p.m.

By David Nakamura Washington Post

Months after his mother, Geraldine, and nine other Black people died in a Buffalo grocery store at the hands of a White gunman, Mark Talley still wrestles with a question that haunts the victims’ families: What is the appropriate punishment for the perpetrator of such a heinous, racist crime?

“Some days, I want him killed in the most painful way - take it back to Genghis Khan’s time, give him as much pain as possible,” Talley said in a telephone interview this week. But in other moments of reflection, Talley, who recently launched a nonprofit community organization called “Agents for Advocacy,” has another view: “I don’t want death. I want him to suffer in jail” for the rest of his life.

Talley and others whose lives were upended after the mass shooting at the Tops supermarket in May have shared their views with senior Justice Department officials, who are soliciting community input as they weigh whether to pursue a capital case against Payton Gendron, 19. Gendron is charged with federal hate crimes and gun-related violations, which qualify him for the death penalty. He also faces state murder charges in New York, which does not allow executions.

Over the summer, the families of Gendron’s victims met with representatives from the office of Trini E. Ross, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, and the Justice Department in Washington. Federal authorities emphasized that the case might be years away from trial, and they offered no timeline for when Attorney General Merrick Garland - who will receive recommendations from within the Justice Department - would decide whether to seek the death penalty.

In the meantime, Justice officials are taking other steps to bolster community confidence in the federal government’s commitment to fighting hate crimes. On Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, will visit Buffalo for the launch of a nationwide Justice Department program to improve local efforts to track and prosecute bias-motivated attacks.

Survivors and relatives of the Tops victims remain divided on whether Gendron should get the death penalty or life in prison, even as many seek to channel their grief into advocacy on issues including gun control, the threat of domestic terrorism and community development.

Zeneta B. Everhart, whose son Zaire Goodman, 21, was wounded by a gunshot to the neck, said they both have expressed to prosecutors a preference for life in prison if Gendron is convicted.

“I do not think death-for-death is a solution for the problem,” said Everhart, who testified before a congressional panel on gun control in June and addressed the Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh on domestic extremism last week. “The problem this person had will not end when he dies. It does not erase the racism. The bigger issue is that he was radicalized into hating Black people.”

Such debates in capital punishment-eligible cases are not uncommon. The community was divided in the federal cases of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof - sentenced to death for, respectively, the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013 and the fatal shootings of nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2016. Families also have disagreed over the fate of Nikolas Cruz, who faces a potential death sentence in Florida state court after being convicted of fatally shooting 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

For Garland, the Buffalo case is further complicated by a moratorium on federal executions that he issued last year, when he instructed the Justice Department to examine changes to lethal injection policies made by the Trump administration, which carried out 13 executions in its final six months.

Gendron has pleaded not guilty in his federal case. His attorneys said in a July court appearance that they were hopeful for a no-trial resolution, suggesting that he would be interested in a plea deal that presumably would preclude the death penalty. The next hearing is set for December.

“What I’m seeing and hearing is no one from the families is advocating to spare Gendron’s life,” said John V. Elmore, a Buffalo attorney who is representing two families in the Tops supermarket case. “I think there are some people that are very, very pro-death penalty in this case, and some people are, ‘Let a jury decide.’”

In an interview with ABC News last month, Wayne Jones and Garnell Whitfield Jr. - whose mothers, Celestine Chaney and Ruth Whitfield, respectively, were among those killed - said they were not advocating for the death penalty.

Jones said authorities risk turning Gendron, who investigators say wrote a 700-page manifesto sketching plans for the attack, into a martyr for white supremacists if he is put to death. Whitfield called Gendron an “insignificant pawn” in a racist system and said he would focus his attention on combating “the things that empowered him and the reason he became who he was.” Like Everhart, Whitfield appeared at the global anti-hate summit in Pittsburgh last week.

Monica Barnett, whose cousin Pearl Young was killed in the Buffalo shooting, wrote a column for MSNBC days after the massacre reflecting on Young’s teaching career and work operating a food pantry for the homeless. Barnett, a stylist and branding expert based in Washington, D.C., suggested Young, 77, would have forgiven Gendron and prayed with him. In an interview this week, Barnett said the essay drew some criticism from her relatives, whom she described as split over Gendron’s fate.

“We’re a religious family. We were raised in the church. But it doesn’t preclude us having these emotions over someone we lost,” Barnett said. “From that perspective, half the family is like, ‘Yeah, sentencing him to death is the answer. That’s the way to seek justice.’ The other half is just like, ‘No, that’s not the right thing. None of that brings Pearl back.’ “

Pamela Pritchett, one of Young’s three adult children, said she has discussed the case with her siblings, and they expect to come to a consensus over the question of the death penalty.

“To be honest, this is a difficult thought for me,” said Pritchett, who is focused on pressuring state lawmakers who have voted against stricter measures to curb hate crimes. “I don’t feel comfortable speaking about it. I think it is a very personal family decision.”

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