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Federal prosecutors seek the death penalty for Buffalo mass shooter

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Federal prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty for a white supremacist who murdered 10 Black people at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket in 2022. Here's member station WBFO's Emyle Watkins.

EMYLE WATKINS, BYLINE: Friday's decision from the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty means that gunman Payton Gendron will face trials in federal court. He avoided trial in his state case by pleading guilty to 25 charges, a move outside attorneys believe was likely made in hopes that the DOJ would not seek the death penalty. But the DOJ never promised that. Zeneta Everhart is the mother of Zaire Goodman, one of the three people who was shot but survived. Outside of federal court Friday, she said she is satisfied with the DOJ's decision.

ZENETA EVERHART: For me, I believe in the greater good of that, right? There should be a trial. The country should see what happened that day. They should know what led up to that, right? They should hear all about the manifesto and the guns that he used and modified.

WATKINS: Gendron previously pleaded not guilty to 27 federal counts against him. He could still plead guilty, avoiding a criminal trial, but a sentencing trial would still be held where a jury would have to be unanimous to send him to death row. New York state abolished the death penalty for state-level cases 20 years ago, but the Justice Department had the ability to seek the death penalty for Gendron's federal hate crimes case. This is the first time President Biden's Justice Department has authorized a new pursuit of the death penalty. Terrence Connors, an attorney for some of the families, acknowledged relatives are split on whether federal prosecutors should seek the death penalty.

TERRENCE CONNORS: Several of them felt that life in prison was the appropriate sentence - you know, let him stay there and experience that. And there were others that thought the maximum punishment was warranted in this case. And if not in this case, in what case?

WATKINS: Attorney Connors says he expects the case to go to trial by the end of the year at the earliest. Everhart said no matter when the trial happens, it won't fully provide closure.

EVERHART: I don't think that emotion will ever die. There has not been a day since 5/14 that I haven't thought about it.

WATKINS: Court was adjourned until next month, when the trial date will be set.

For NPR News, I'm Emyle Watkins in Buffalo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emyle Watkins
Emyle Watkins is a multimedia journalist with experience in newspapers, web, TV and radio.