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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gunman in El Paso mass shooting sentenced for federal hate crimes

Antonio Basco kneeling before a cross honoring his wife, Margie Reckard, who was one of the victims of a mass shooting at a local Walmart earlier in the month, in El Paso, Texas on Aug. 15, 2019.

By Edgar Sandoval

A self-described white nationalist who wrote that Hispanics were “invading” America before fatally shooting 23 people at a Walmart store in El Paso was sentenced Friday to 90 consecutive life terms for his conviction on federal hate crimes charges.

For two days this week, relatives of victims confronted the shooter during an emotional hearing in federal court, where they called him a coward and described some of the gaping wounds caused by the AK-47-style rifle that he used in the shooting, which also left 22 people injured, including an infant.

Several of the victims’ relatives had hoped the shooter, Patrick Crusius, would be sentenced to death. Texas prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty when Crusius is tried later on murder charges in state court. “Life sentence is not justice for you,” Luis Juarez Jr., who lost his father in the massacre, told Crusius.

The federal sentencing in the attack, one of the deadliest on Latinos in U.S. history, follows a plea agreement in February that recommended that the defendant be imprisoned for life in exchange for pleading guilty to hate crimes and weapons charges.

El Paso District Attorney Bill Hicks told reporters Thursday that he owed it to the aggrieved families to bring state capital murder charges. “It is a tremendous burden,” he said.

Hicks said he expected Crusius to be turned over to state custody by October or November for the murder trial, for which no date has been set. “We will be pursuing the death penalty,” he said.

After the sentencing Friday, Dean Reckard, whose mother was killed in the shooting, stood up and yelled at Crusius, “We will be seeing you again, coward. No apologies, no nothing.”

Relatives of the victims cried and hugged one another in the courthouse hallways after the hearing was adjourned. Crusius showed no emotion as he was escorted out of the courtroom.

His defense lawyer, Joe Spencer, said his client was suffering from “severe mental illness” when he committed the crimes. He said that at a young age, Crusius heard voices and felt presences that were not there, and was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition that caused him to have violent thoughts and hallucinations.

“Patrick acted with his broken brain, centered in delusions,” Spencer told the court. “We hope that we have provided some answers to what feels uncomprehensible.”

One of the prosecutors, Ian Martinez Hanna, an assistant U.S. attorney, rejected that notion and said in court that the shooter was motivated by an ideology of hatred. He said Crusius planned the attack well in advance, purchased a rifle six weeks before the attack and drove 10 hours to a location where he knew he would be able to find a large number of Hispanic people in one place. “When he went in there and looked at the barrel of his rifle,” Martinez Hanna said, “he wanted to eliminate a class of people. He failed.”

The defendant, he told the court, was “a danger to all of us.”

The crime occurred Aug. 3, 2019. Prosecutors say Crusius drove to El Paso from Allen, Texas, a city near Dallas, and attacked the Walmart store, which is in a popular commercial district near Cielo Vista Mall, a retail complex with dozens of restaurants and stores that is usually crowded on weekends.

Crusius stalked shoppers and employees in the aisles and behind cash registers. He shot a couple who had been married for 70 years, a 15-year-old boy who had dreamed of joining the Border Patrol and a young mother who was shielding her infant son.

Crusius surrendered to a Texas state trooper who pulled him over, telling the trooper, “I’m the shooter.”

A little more than 15 minutes before the attack began, Crusius published a hate-filled manifesto online that promoted a claim, widely espoused by white supremacists, that wealthy and powerful people facilitated immigration from mainly Black and brown countries to replace white people in the United States and Europe.

He told police officers after his arrest that he identified as a “white nationalist” and wanted to kill Latinos because “they were immigrating to the United States.” El Paso was his target, he told them, because it was a Latino-majority city with strong cultural ties to the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez just across the border.

El Paso has long been seen as an Ellis Island of the Southwest, a destination for migrants from all over the world who want to enter the United States. Immigrants make up about one-quarter of the city’s population.

The sentencing Friday was a rare legal proceeding against a mass shooter. Many such attacks end with the shooters dying in confrontations with police or taking their own lives.

Last year, a jury sentenced to life in prison the young man who killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In 2015, a jury sentenced the man who killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, to life in prison with no chance of parole. Two years later, a federal jury recommended the death penalty for a white supremacist who gunned down nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

After Friday’s sentencing in El Paso, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the case reflected the Justice Department’s “unwavering” commitment to combating hate crimes.

“No one in this country should have to live in fear of hate-fueled violence — that they will be targeted because of what they look like or where they are from,” he said in a statement.

During the three-day sentencing hearing this week, Crusius appeared defiant at times, smiling and nodding his head when relatives of victims hurled insults at him.

At one point, Reckard, whose mother was battling Parkinson’s disease when she was killed, asked Crusius to look at photos of her that were displayed on several screens in the courtroom. Crusius craned his neck to see.

“Do you sleep good at night?” Reckard asked him, his voice trembling with anger.

Crusius nodded.

“Are you sorry for what you did?”

This time, Crusius nodded yes.

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