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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Buffalo gunman sentenced to life in emotional and dramatic hearing

A memorial on Friday, May 20, 2022, across the street from the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., where 10 people were killed in a white supremacist shooting rampage on May 14. The gunman in the massacre was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, after apologizing for his attack amid a torrent of raw emotions from the victims’ families, including one man who lunged at him in court.

By Jesse McKinley and Dan Higgins

The gunman in a racist massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, last year was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole Wednesday, after apologizing for his attack amid a torrent of raw emotions from the victims’ families, including one man who lunged at him in court.

“You will never see the light of day as a free man again,” said the judge, Susan Eagan, after reading a statement about the harmful effects of institutional racism and white supremacy, calling it an “insidious cancer on our society and nation.”

The sentence reflected the outcome of a guilty plea to 10 counts of first-degree murder and a single count of domestic terrorism motivated by hate, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment without parole.

Eagan’s sentence came after a brief apology by the gunman, Payton Gendron, who said he was “very sorry” for the attack and blamed online content for the shooting rampage May 14 in which 10 people were killed, all of them Black, and three people injured. He said he didn’t want to inspire other racist killings.

“I shot and killed people because they were Black,” he said. “Looking back now, I can’t believe I actually did.”

As Gendron spoke, a member of the audience began screaming and cursing at him, the second such interruption in an emotionally raw hearing.

Earlier, the sentencing was dramatically interrupted and the courtroom cleared after a man lunged at the defendant.

Eagan emptied the courtroom and reconvened the hearing a short time later, pleading for decorum while saying she understood the anger toward the gunman. “We are all better than that,” she said.

Before Gendron heard his sentence, families of the victims testified to the insurmountable damage done by the attack.

“You are a cowardly racist,” said Simone Crawley, whose grandmother Ruth Whitfield, 86, was killed in the shooting. She asked for accountability for others who aided or turned a blind eye to Gendron’s growing radicalization.

“You recorded the last moments of our loved ones’ lives to garner support for your hateful cause, but you immortalize them instead,” Crawley continued. “We are extremely aware that you are not a lone wolf, but a part of a larger organized network of domestic terrorists. And to that network, we say we as a people are unbreakable.”

Zeneta Everhart, whose son Zaire was injured but survived, said, “The world says you have to forgive in order to move on. But I stand before you today to say that will never happen.”

Kimberly Salter’s husband, Aaron Salter, a retired Buffalo police officer, did not survive: He was shot and killed in the attack. Salter quoted the Bible as she stood just feet from Gendron, who wore an orange jumpsuit and spectacles.

“You will reap,” she said, “what you sow.”

The gunman mostly gazed at many of them impassively as they spoke, except for one moment when he could be seen crying.

Gendron, 19, pleaded guilty in November to the state charges. He is also charged with federal hate crimes and weapons violations, some of which could carry the death penalty if the Justice Department decided to seek it. Those charges are still pending.

Gendron, an avowed white supremacist, livestreamed the attack and specifically chose the Tops market in east Buffalo because it had a large Black clientele.

In the days and months before his massacre, the gunman — who was 18 at the time — had written in exhaustive and hate-filled detail about his plans.

The mass shooting was a stark reminder of the rise of white supremacy in America as well as of the limitations of state gun laws in an age when the Supreme Court has allowed broad protections for gun owners, including striking down a New York law in June that placed strict limits on carrying guns.

Shortly after the Buffalo attack, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a series of measures to once again strengthen New York’s gun laws while investigating social media platforms where the gunman was radicalized. (That new gun law has, thus far, withstood legal challenges.)

Hochul, a Democrat, also mandated that New York State Police use the state’s so-called red-flag law to seek emergency orders from judges to seize weapons from people who are believed to pose a threat to themselves or others.

Gendron was never flagged by such systems, however, despite the fact that he had voiced a desire to commit a murder-suicide while he was a high school student in 2021 and was taken in for a psychiatric evaluation. He was soon released.

The planning and barbarity of his plans became apparent May 14: After driving to Buffalo from his home in Conklin, New York, some 200 miles from Buffalo, he wore body armor and camouflage during his shooting spree.

He also posted a lengthy screed riddled with racist writings and expressing admiration for a white supremacist ideology known as replacement theory, which posits the false idea that white people, who make up a majority of America’s population, are being supplanted by minorities.

His video feed of the attack was briefly online before being shut down by social media companies. Still, the Buffalo attack remains one of the nation’s deadliest racist shootings, joining a list that includes the killing of nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; an antisemitic rampage in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 where 11 people were killed; and an attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 in which more than 20 people were killed by a man who had expressed hatred of Latinos.

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