(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — Anger boiled over Wednesday at the sentencing hearing of Buffalo mass shooter Payton Gendron, when a family member of a victim charged after Gendron and had to be restrained by courtroom guards.
The explosive moment came as Barbara Massey whose sister, Katherine Massey, was giving an emotional victim impact statement: “I want to personally choke you,” she said to 19-year-old Gendron.
As she was speaking, a relative lunged toward Gendron, who was seated at the defense table sobbing in tears. Guards quickly restrained the man as they hustled Gendron from the courtroom. Judge Susan Eagan temporarily halted the hearing and called for order in the court.
“I am sure you all are disturbed by the physicality we’ve seen today. I understand the emotion and I understand the anger but we cannot have that in the courtroom,” Eagan said.
Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose 86-year-old mother died in the Tops supermarket massacre last May, said he’s not interested in hearing what the gunman has to say when he plans to apologize to victims’ families.
“Nothing he’s going to say to me is going to bring my mother back. It’s not going to take away the pain of losing her,” Whitfield, the retired Buffalo fire commissioner, told ABC News. “I’m assuming that whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for himself.”
Gendron, who killed 10 people on May 14, will be sentenced later today to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He pleaded guilty in November to 15 charges, including murder and attempted murder. He is the first person in state history to be charged with domestic terrorism motivated by hate. He has pleaded guilty.
In addition to the state case, he is facing hate and domestic terrorism charges in federal court. His attorneys said he might consider pleading guilty if prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty.
Gendron, a self-professed white supremacist who livestreamed part of the attack, plans to make a statement at Wednesday’s hearing, in which he is expected to apologize to the loved ones of those he gunned down, sources told The Buffalo News.
Wayne Jones, whose 65-year-old mother was killed in the rampage, said he plans to speak at the sentencing hearing.
“My message for him will be [about] mistakes, that there are mistakes you can’t take back and now you have to live with the consequences,” Jones told ABC News. “He can apologize. I’ll respect that, but he needs to sit and think about the situation as much as I do everyday. For me, it never goes away.”
Jones and Whitfield are among the family members of those killed who have submitted victim impact statements to the court.
“The emotions of the families that we speak for run the entire gamut. There are those who are anxious to see the maximum penalty imposed on the shooter but there are also family members who regard the shooter as irrelevant and pay him no deference as they strive to achieve something positive from this horrific experience,” Terry Connors, an attorney who represents several families who lost loved ones.
Attorney John Elmore, who also represents the families of three victims, said more than a dozen people are expected to deliver victim impact statements before Judge Susan Eagan imposes the sentence.
Whitfield told ABC News on Tuesday he’s yet to decide whether to read the statement in court, saying, “If I do, it will be on behalf of my father.”
Whitfield’s father, 88-year-old Garnell W. Whitfield Sr., suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home.
Gendron planned the massacre for months — including previously traveling twice to the Tops store he targeted, a more than three-hour drive from his home in Conklin, New York — to scout the layout and count the number of Black people present, according to prosecutors. Wearing tactical gear, body armor, and wielding an AR-15 style rifle he legally purchased and illegally modified, Gendron committed the rampage on a Saturday afternoon when prosecutors said he knew the store would be full of Black shoppers.
The attack was caught on a Tops supermarket surveillance camera and a helmet camera worn by Gendron that he used to livestream on Twitch. Prior to the attack, he also posted a racist screed online containing the names of past mass shooters he admired.
“Whatever he does in court is a procedural thing. His fate is sealed, there’s no discretion in the sentencing. It’s life without parole, period,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield said any statement he makes will be focused on “the people and places and things that empowered him, that radicalized him, that helped him do what he did.”
In October, New York State Attorney General Letitia James released the report, alleging several online platforms played roles in the May 14 mass shooting by radicalizing Gendron, as he consumed voluminous amounts of racist and violent content, and then by allowing him to broadcast the deadly attack. The report found anonymous, largely unmoderated websites and platforms, like 4chan, allegedly influenced Gendron. It also said livestreaming platforms like Twitch were “weaponized” to publicize and encourage copycat attacks.
Ordinarily, social media platforms cannot be sued over content, but Elmore told ABC News there are grounds for viable suits against several social media platforms over the way they’re designed to promote constant engagement. “The litigation we are preparing will deter the social media platforms from continuing their policies of directing their algorithms to radicalize people to become dangerous to our society,” Elmore said.
Elmore added that Gendron “was trained and inspired to commit this tremendous murder by social media.”
“All those things are still in place and still in a position to continue the perpetuation of all the injustices and evils that are part of our society,” Whitfield said. “[Gendron] did this for attention. Let’s not give it to him.”
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