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Criminal Justice

Racist Buffalo Shooter Pleads Guilty, but Healing for Families Is Uncertain

“We're not looking for anything but justice, and it looks like by him pleading guilty, justice shall be served,” said the Rev. Diann Holt.

Aaron Jordan of Buffalo, New York, adds to a sidewalk chalk mural depicting the names of the people killed in the mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo in May. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Buffalo, New York, residents expressed relief that justice will be served in state court after a self-proclaimed white supremacist pleaded guilty Monday to killing 10 Black people in a neighborhood grocery store this spring. But some are concerned that the many lingering questions about the horrendous attack will remain unanswered without a public trial.

The admission of guilt will relieve families and friends from having to listen to a trial, but they have a longer road to recover from the pain and suffering that the then-18-year-old shooter committed.

“In my heart of hearts, [I believe] that him pleading guilty, will lift a lot of the burden off of people that he’s not going to walk,” said the Rev. Diann Holt, a Buffalo resident and founder of Durham’s Maternal Stress-Free Zone, a nonprofit organization that provides services for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. “Prayerfully, justice will be served in the sentences and it will bring closure, even though it will not bring a clear understanding because I’m told he still hasn’t yet said why he did what he did.”

In a handwritten note discovered by authorities, the gunman said he committed the massacre “for the future of the White race,” according to prosecutors.

The slain members of the Buffalo community were: Roberta A. Drury, 32; Margus D. Morrison, 52; Andre Mackneil, 53; Aaron Salter, 55; Geraldine Talley, 62; Celestine Chaney, 65; Heyward Patterson, 67; Katherine Massey, 72; Pearl Young, 77; and Ruth Whitfield, 86. Three others were injured during the shooting.

The armed gunman drove three hours from Conklin, New York, to the Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo’s Cold Spring neighborhood on May 14 and indiscriminately opened fire on shoppers outside and inside the store while livestreaming the massacre online. 

Buffalo police officers arrived on the scene in under two minutes and the shooter, who is white, surrendered. 

The murderer pleaded guilty to 15 of the 25 counts against him, including 10 counts of first-degree murder as a hate crime and one count of first-degree domestic act of terrorism motivated by hate. He is expected to be sentenced on Feb. 15 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

“There’s never going to be full closure for these families. All I can do is provide legal closure, and that I have done. Hopefully, the legal closure will help the healing process. Hopefully the legal closure will provide their families and the victims some measure of relief, for they can now get on with their lives,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn at a press conference following the gunman’s court appearance on Monday. “As we go into [the] holiday season here, let us not forget and let us continue to pray for the victims and their families and this community. As we roll into 2023, let us also not forget, and as the years go by, and the cameras go away, we as a community can never forget.”

Families of the victims will receive the opportunity to address the judge prior to sentencing. 

“They will never recover from the pain and suffering that they receive and live through daily and constantly. This is a trauma that you would never imagine anyone in life could ever imagine having to live through, something that bad. The pain is so intense,” said John V. Elmore, an attorney for two of the families.

The gunman also has been indicted by a federal grand jury on hate crime charges. Elmore predicts that the shooter’s defense attorneys will leverage the sentencing terms of the state’s case in his pending federal hate crimes case to avoid receiving the maximum sentence — the death penalty. The New York Court of Appeals declared the death penalty as unconstitutional in 2007, and by the next year, then-Gov. David Paterson ordered prisons to get rid of the execution equipment. 

“The evidence was overwhelming. And we understand that the motivation for this is to spare him from the death penalty in federal court,” Elmore said, adding, “Obviously, they don’t have a lot of cards to play, because this murder was so heinous and the evidence of guilt is so overwhelming, that if he’s already spending his life in prison without parole, which [is] the best argument that they could make to the Justice Department not to execute this guy, as he’s already in a corner like a caged rat.” 

Elmore represents the families of Mackneil and Massey. They intend to file a lawsuit against the gun manufacturers and the social media platform that housed the radicalized instructions on how to carry out the attack.  

Some Buffalo residents such as Jerome R. Wright are conflicted with the state’s case coming to a close in less than six months. While Wright is pleased that the families won’t have to listen to or watch the shooting’s violent details in court, he notes that a trial would have provided more insight on how the massacre was able to happen.

“With the fact that this is a young Caucasian man, it seems to me like they’re making every attempt to make this as expeditious and as quiet as possible, which means we won’t get some of the information of how this really happened,” Wright said. “Because I can tell you, there’s no 13- to 18-year-old who could pull all of that off by themselves without any guidance, any help, and I really feel like we may be missing the mark.”

Wright, who is the vice president of Voice Buffalo, a nonprofit organization of over 200 interfaith church communities, said there’s reason to believe that Tops locations in the Buffalo area may still be a target since another racist threat was made to a second location in the city. Federal investigators arrested a Washington man in July for the phoned-in hate crime threat, and he pleaded guilty earlier this month. 

As law enforcement investigated the crime scene, it left members of the nearly 80% Black community without a fresh-food market to shop in for miles. During that time, members of the community banded together to create makeshift food pantries and offered carpool transportation for their neighbors, and Tops provided shuttle bus services to their other locations.

When the store reopened in July, it was met with mixed reactions from the community. Some were spared from going to other grocery stores in predominantly white neighborhoods, where they felt less welcomed, while others still cannot bring themselves to walk through the rebuilt aisles that once were covered with their loved ones’ blood.

“The bottom line is that we’re not looking for sympathy. We’re not looking for anything but justice, and it looks like, by him pleading guilty, justice shall be served,” said Holt, 74. “I can’t say everybody in the community is going to forgive him and move on. I can’t say every family member that was impacted by the heinous act is going to be able to forgive him and move on. But I can say this much: Everybody is in their own place in their own healing.”