Stop State Killing sign

A sign that reads "Stop State Killing" is seen during a vigil against the death penalty in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

'State-Sanctioned Murder Is Not Justice': Biden DOJ Seeks Death Penalty for Buffalo Shooter

"The government's decision to pursue a death sentence will do nothing to address the racism and hatred that fueled the mass murder," said the head of Equal Justice USA.

Opponents of capital punishment blasted the Biden administration on Friday after the U.S. Department of Justice revealed it will seek the death penalty for Payton Gendron, a 20-year-old mass shooter already serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for New York state charges.

Motivated by white supremacist ideology, Gendron killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store in May 2022. Last February, he was sentenced in New York, where capital punishment has been banned for two decades. In June, he was charged with federal hate crimes and weapons violations. Prosecutors for that case argued in a Friday filing to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York that "in the event of a conviction, a sentence of death is justified" under federal law.

"This will not bring back the precious lives stolen, nor will it provide healing for the community."

"The government's decision to pursue a death sentence will do nothing to address the racism and hatred that fueled the mass murder," Equal Justice USA's Jamila Hodge said in response to the filing. "Ultimately, this pursuit will inflict more pain and renewed trauma on the victims' families and the larger Black community already shattered by loss and desperately in need of healing and solutions that truly build community safety. Imagine if we invested in that instead of more state violence."

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) highlighted on social media Friday that President Joe Biden, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, campaigned on eliminating the death penalty in the 2020 cycle.

"The death penalty is an immoral, racist, inhumane form of punishment that has no place in any society," said Pressley, a congressional leader in the fight to outlaw capital punishment. "And given that [Biden] ran on a promise to end the death penalty, this is a step in the wrong direction."

"State-sanctioned murder is not justice, no matter how heinous the crime," said Pressley. "Congress must pass our Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, H.R. 4633." And in the meantime, DOJ should change course and [Biden] must keep his promise to end this barbaric, deeply flawed practice."

"I pray for the loved ones and community of those who were viciously stolen from us in that brutal, racist attack in Buffalo," she added. "We must advance true accountability and healing, and continue to fight against the shameful rise of white supremacy in our country."

In a statement Friday, Legal Defense Fund president and director-counsel Janai Nelson called the shooting "a sordid example of the rise of anti-Black racism and hate-motivated violent incidents infecting this country, and the urgent need to root out white supremacy in all its forms."

Nelson explained:

We have strongly condemned the actions of the Buffalo shooter previously, and today, we remain steadfast in the condemnation of this deeply violent and racist act. We stand with the Buffalo community as it continues to reel from this painful event and continues to work to heal. We also demand that the federal government pursue an all-of-government approach to hate-motivated incidents that leads with prevention of and protection from white supremacist violence.

We do not, however, believe that the death penalty is a part of this equation. In times rife with extreme violence, we cannot resort to capital punishment as a solution. We are dismayed at the DOJ's pursuit of the death penalty, as these difficult circumstances are a critical opportunity for the department to instead show courage, leadership, and a commitment to rooting out white supremacy through means that are not merely punitive but that are effective. Justice for the many Black people that were killed in this horrendous attack does not begin with pursuit of the death penalty, which is the very practice that has been used, and continues to be used, in a racially discriminatory fashion to execute Black people and harm Black communities.

"We roundly condemn the pursuit of the death penalty in all circumstances," she stressed. "There is no evidence that the death penalty will deter violence generally or hate-motivated violence specifically. To protect Black communities from white supremacist violence, the federal government must address the root causes of white supremacy and prioritize investing in the health and continued recovery of communities impacted by hate-driven violence."

Friday's decision is the first time the Justice Department, under Biden-appointed U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, has sought a new death sentence, though the DOJ has previously continued to pursue it in a couple of cases that began under the Trump administration.

As The Associated Pressdetailed Friday:

Garland instituted a moratorium on federal executions in 2021 pending a review of procedures. Although the moratorium does not prevent prosecutors from seeking death sentences, the Justice Department has done so sparingly.

It successfully sought the death penalty for an antisemitic gunman who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, though that attack was authorized as a death penalty case before Garland took office. It also went ahead last year with an effort to get the death sentence against an Islamic extremist who killed eight people on a New York City bike path, though a lack of a unanimous jury meant that prosecution resulted in a life sentence.

The Justice Department has declined to pursue the death penalty in other mass killings, including against the gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

White House spokesperson Jeremy Edwards told Politico on Friday that the grocery store shooting was an "an absolute tragedy, and the president continues to pray for the victims of this unspeakable act of violence." He also said that "the president has long talked about his views on this issue broadly, but we would leave it to the appropriate authorities to speak to individual cases and sentencing decisions," and directed journalists to the Justice Department.

Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters that "I support the Department of Justice" in this decision, while victims and their families had mixed reactions. Attorneys for some of them said that the death penalty decision "provides a pathway to both relief and a measure of closure."

However, Michelle Fryson, whose cousin Margus Morrison and aunt Pearl Young were among those killed, suggested that the move means the case could drag out indefinitely due to appeals, according to The Buffalo News.

"It could go on forever. He's a young man. For my family's sake, I wanted them to have closure," said Fryson. "To never have closure, to always be in this circus is exhausting and exasperating."

Sonya Zoghlin, an assistant federal public defender representing Gendron, said in a statement, "Rather than a prolonged and traumatic capital prosecution, the efforts of the federal government would be better spent on combating the forces that facilitated this terrible crime, including easy access to deadly weapons and the failure of social media companies to moderate the hateful rhetoric and images that circulate online."

While Biden has faced criticism for not delivering on his 2020 campaign promise, Republican presidential candidates have made their support for capital punishment clear. The federal government executed 13 people under former President Donald Trump and when the GOP front-runner announced his 2024 campaign, "he called for the use of the death penalty against alleged drug dealers," Politico noted Friday. "Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has also increased the availability of the death penalty."

Last summer, HuffPost's Jessica Schulberg reported on the Democratic president's lack of action and the looming GOP threat:

The threat of a capital punishment enthusiast returning to the White House has the abolitionist community hoping Biden will grant clemency to those on federal death row before leaving office—or that the Justice Department will at least stop seeking and defending death sentences.

"If you don't execute anyone, but you usher them all into a President Trump or a President DeSantis, what have you done?" Ruth Friedman, the Federal Capital Habeas Project director, said in an interview with HuffPost. "That's far from clean hands. Quite the opposite."

Noting that reporting on social media on Friday, Schulberg called the Biden administration's decision in Gendron's case a "truly stunning reversal of an explicit campaign promise to abolish the death penalty."

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