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Man accused in killing Buffalo, N.Y., shooting will face federal hate crimes charges

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

He allegedly apologized to white victims while purposely shooting Black shoppers. That's one of the details in the new federal complaint against the white gunman charged in last month's mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo. Today, the Justice Department announced multiple hate and weapons charges in that massacre, which left 10 people dead and three wounded. Attorney General Merrick Garland spent the morning with victims' families and said the country had a, quote, "legal and moral obligation to pursue justice."

NPR's Cheryl Corley has been following the case since the shooting occurred and joins us now. Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Cheryl, this suspected shooter is 18 years old. He's already pleaded not guilty to state murder charges and domestic terrorism. What is different about these federal charges?

CORLEY: Well, you know, this really focuses on the racial aspect of this mass shooting and that it was motivated by hate. They really doubled down on that. There are 26 counts in all, 10 of them for hate crimes that resulted in the death of 10 African Americans, three more hate crime counts based on the injury of one more African American and two white individuals and several more counts that were related to using a firearm to commit murder.

PFEIFFER: The attorney general described some of the evidence gathered by law enforcement. Tell us some of those details.

CORLEY: Yeah. The complaint talks about how the accused shooter, Payton Gendron, selected a target in a zip code that really had the highest percentage of Black people close to where he lives, that he selected the Tops supermarket because it had a high percentage and high density of Black people, that he made a map of the inside of the Tops store and decided the best plan for the attack and really that he just visited the store often, including a day before the shooting and also a few hours before. They also charge he committed the attack in an effort to inspire others to carry out similar racially motivated attacks. So Garland says on May 14, the shooter arrived in body armor with loaded - with a loaded rifle and targeted as many Black people as he could find.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: At one point, he aimed his rifle at a white male Tops employee who had been shot in the leg and injured. Instead of shooting the white employee, the gunman apologized to him before continuing his attack.

CORLEY: Yeah. So the DOJ really made the case for just how methodical the shooter was about picking a place and about the people that he wanted to kill.

PFEIFFER: Cheryl, how likely is it that the shooter will face the death penalty as a result of these federal charges?

CORLEY: Well, these charges bring a penalty of either life in prison or the death penalty. And the attorney general was noncommittal about it. He declined to say whether the death penalty would be pursued and only that the department would follow proper legal procedure and consult with the families.

But the investigation continues. The attorney general has promised to be relentless. Family members say that's what they want. My colleague Michael Mroziak at member station WBFO was on hand in Buffalo when Garnell Whitfield spoke with reporters after meeting with the attorney general. He's a son of the eldest victim of the shooting, and he says it's not time to talk about the death penalty, that all that he and the family members want as a result of these charges is justice.

GARNELL WHITFIELD: We're looking for him to prosecute this case and to leave no stone unturned, like they said, to make sure that anybody associated with this guy or white supremacy, that we pull the covers off of them.

PFEIFFER: And, Cheryl, very briefly, this grocery store Tops was so important to this community. Has anyone talked about how this community moves on?

CORLEY: Not yet as far as the supermarket is concerned. It's still an open question about when it will reopen.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Cheryl Corley. Cheryl, thank you.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.