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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Brooklyn subway shooter receives 10 life sentences, one for each victim

Frank James is placed by police in a squad car at Ninth Precinct after being arrested for his connection to a mass shooting at the 36th Street subway station on April 13, 2022, in New York City.  (Michael M. Santiago)
By Michael Wilson New York Times

NEW YORK – Frank James, who opened fire in a morning-rush subway car in Brooklyn in April 2022, wounding 10 people but miraculously killing none before making his escape by blending into the fleeing crowd, was given 10 life sentences – one for each person he shot – in federal court on Thursday.

James, 64, spoke with a blend of contrition and defiance during the court hearing, describing the shootings as “cowardly acts of senseless violence” but suggesting he is a victim of racism and mental illness who never received the proper care. Judge William Kuntz II acknowledged his troubled background, but forcefully rebuked him for his actions.

“Each mass shooting constitutes an act of raw evil,” Kuntz said, adding that the incident was an attack not just on the subway, but on the entire city.

Several victims and fellow passengers spoke with emotion as they relived the attack. “We were in a community in that train car,” one passenger, identified in court only by the initials B.K., said, directly addressing James. “I trusted you.”

The shooting, on an N train on April 12, 2022, paralyzed an entire section of Brooklyn as police officers flooded the streets and subway platforms and helicopters flew overhead. Schools carried out lockdown plans. No one knew where the gunman might strike next.

About 30 hours later, after traveling through the city and to Newark, New Jersey, and back, James was arrested.

James’ lawyers argued in court filings that he suffered a mental breakdown that led him to carry out the attack. But prosecutors said his plotting actually began as early as three years prior, with online purchases of smoke bombs and ammunition like what was used in the subway car.

On that day, he boarded the train wearing a yellow hard hat and reflective vest. “I don’t know if you remember, but we greeted each other that morning,” B.K. said.

James kept other passengers from sitting near him, saying the seats were wet. This way, prosecutors said, he could ensure no one was close enough to interfere.

“I said, ‘Thank you,’ ” B.K. recalled in court.

James set off a smoke bomb, turning the air a cloudy gray. “Everyone began to panic,” another passenger, C.T., wrote in a statement that a prosecutor read aloud during the sentencing hearing. “Moments later was when the pop, pop, pop sounds began.”

Standing at the end of the car, James fired blindly into the smoke and the crowd. The act has been likened to shooting fish in a barrel, but prosecutors used another phrase: “kill funnel.”

“The smoke made it hard to breathe and I pulled my hoodie down over my face to provide another layer of filtration,” C.T. wrote. “I prayed. I prayed that God would protect us.” The train stopped in a tunnel. “People were yelling to break the doors down,” C.T. wrote.

B.K. became pinned beneath other passengers on the floor. “I had no air in my lungs with all the weight,” he said. He heard gunshots and felt a body on top of him – a teenage boy – shudder with impact.

Moments later, B.K. saw a man crawl past with blood flowing out of a “dark hole in his back,” he said.

Another passenger, L.C., made a silent oath: “God, if you get me out of this, I will change my life around and do better,” he said in court.

James fired 32 rounds from his Glock before it jammed. Sixteen of those bullets struck passengers. “The floor was covered in blood,” C.T. wrote.

The train finally arrived at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and everyone who was able ran out onto the platform. “I noticed several people laying down on the ground that had been injured,” C.T. wrote.

She counted herself extremely lucky, and not for the first time. On Sept. 11, 2001, she recalled, she slept through her alarm and did not go to her office in the World Trade Center. On the morning of April 12, 2022, she had been eager to return to in-person work for the first time since the pandemic.

“I put my hands on my knees, took a few deep breaths, and then looked to see who needed the most help,” she wrote.

James, in the chaos, removed his hard hat and vest and changed trains. There was no surveillance footage of the scene. The cameras in the station were not working.

He boarded a bus to Park Slope, pulled a mask over his mouth and nose and bought a drink in a deli. Another bus ride followed, to a bodega, where he bought a mask of another color. He would toggle between masks and wearing a jacket and a cap for the rest of the day, avoiding detection.

He spent the night in Newark Penn Station, then went to Manhattan, where he was recognized by bystanders in the East Village. He called the police himself, reporting his location, and was arrested. Years of ranting, rambling social media posts quickly surfaced, as well as direct threats of violence by gunfire.

In his address to the court Thursday, James, wearing reading glasses and speaking in a clear, composed voice, said the shooting was a terribly misguided cry for help.

“I am part of a still unrepaired and broken and damaged people,” he said. His winding statement invoked slavery, Reconstruction and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and he improbably compared his situation to that of Jordan Neely, a Black man struggling with mental illness who was killed on a subway train in May when another passenger placed him in a chokehold.

“I, like that young man, was a mental health consumer,” he said. “I am Black and African American and that’s the reason I’m sitting in front of you today.”

Kuntz was unmoved. “Yes, we have issues with guns and mental illness and racism,” he said, “but only one man took it upon himself to get on that subway car.”

James pleaded guilty to 10 counts of terrorism in January. His court-appointed lawyer, Mia Eisner-Grynberg, sought a sentence of 18 years, calling it “sufficient but not greater than necessary.” The government’s lawyers sought the 10 life sentences the judge ultimately handed down. The judge also sentenced James to 10 additional years for a firearms charge, matching the government’s request.

In a statement after the hearing, Breon S. Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, praised the bravery of the passengers on the subway that day.

“I want to thank you,” he said, adding, “On a day when evil imperiled so many, you showed that this city is made of good people. That we look out for one another.”

Every one of the passengers who spoke or wrote statements for the hearing described panic attacks and trouble sleeping after the shooting. The passenger identified as L.C. said he has since spent thousands of dollars on electric scooters and a bike because he is afraid to ride the subway. “You did something incredibly evil and your mother would be ashamed of you,” he said in court, addressing James. “You are a very sick man. I pray you get the help you need.”

Outside the courtroom after the hearing, the passenger identified as B.K. reflected on James’ sentence.

“I know personally there is a lot of pain,” he said. “I think it was the right ruling.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.