The Justice Department is nearing a decision over whether to pursue the death penalty for Payton Gendron, the 20-year-old White gunman who slaughtered 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store last year, a racist attack that could lead to the first new capital prosecution authorized by Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Washington Post reports. Gendron faces federal charges on hate crimes and weapons violations for the May 2022 massacre. He already is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to New York state murder charges. Defense attorneys said he would plead guilty to the federal counts if prosecutors forego the death penalty.
Garland’s decision is freighted with political significance, over whether capital punishment is a just outcome for perpetrators of the nation’s deadliest mass killings. The attorney general has echoed concerns about the death penalty from civil rights groups and Democrats, including President Biden, who say it disproportionately targets minorities and the poor. But nearly three years into his tenure, Garland has sent conflicting signals about his stance. This year, prosecutors took two death penalty cases Garland inherited to trial, though the attorney general has withdrawn the department’s intent to seek capital punishment in 32 others that were similarly filed before he took office. In 2021, Garland issued a moratorium on actually carrying out federal executions, which remains in place. But the Justice Department continues to aggressively fight appeals from the 40 inmates who are on federal death row.