As federal prosecutors consider what punishment to seek against the accused gunman in the May 2022 mass shooting at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, survivors and family members of victims of the shooting are concerned that pursuing the death penalty will further spread the racial hatred that fueled the massacre and divert attention from meaningful action to combat white supremacist violence.

In interviews with ABC News aired September 1, 2022, Wayne Jones (pictured) and Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose mothers were two of the ten African Americans killed in the rampage, and store worker Fragrance Harris Stanfield, who survived the shooting, questioned the appropriateness of the death penalty in the case.

“If you kill him, he becomes a martyr,” Jones said, inspiring others radicalized by online conspiracy theories and racist political rhetoric to replicate his acts.

Punishing the shooter isn’t the issue, Whitfield said. The issue is combatting white supremacy. “[T]his ain’t about that guy,” he said. “I’m focused on the things that empowered him and the reason he became who he was. The systems and the people that continue to be in power to this day that continue to make victims of us all.”

Federal prosecutors allege that the accused 19-year-old shooter, Payton Gendron, who kept a detailed 700-page on-line diary of his plans, was motivated by a right-wing racist conspiracy theory that forces in the U.S. were attempting to replace white citizens with people of color and wanted to “inspire others to commit similar attacks.” ABC reported that a Joint Intelligence Bulletin obtained from federal counterterrorism authorities raised fears that the contents of Gendron’s diary, if publicly released, “outlining [his] tactics, techniques and procedures … will likely enhance the capabilities of potential mass casualty shooters who may be inspired by this attack.”

Whitfield, a former Buffalo fire commissioner, said it is time for the country to seriously address the rise in white supremacy. However, he recognizes the reluctance of white Americans to engage in such a discussion. “You would have to acknowledge that your ancestors enslaved my ancestors and built this country on our backs. … You would have to acknowledge the lies that you’ve been taught. And you’d have to acknowledge the faults of your ancestors, of your belief system. You would have to come to grips with all that. And that’s uncomfortable.”

The Buffalo shooting is one of the most visible of the rising number of hate crimes committed against African Americans across the United States. FBI data indicate that such hate crimes rose by 46% between 2019 and 2020.

Whitfield described Gendron as “an insignificant pawn being used by the powers that be. … I don’t care if he gets the death penalty or not. I don’t really care about him,” he said. “He’s a victim, too,” Whitfied said. “He’s just too stupid and ignorant to know it.”

Jones said, “When you see him in court, he’s a child. You can tell he’s a child and, whether he tells anybody or not, you can see it in his face: ‘I messed up badly.’ So, for me, I would rather for him to just stay behind bars for the rest of his life.”

“I know some people want the death penalty for him,” Jones said. “But I’ve got kids. I’ve had 18-year-old kids and you make a lot of mistakes when you’re younger. He made a big one. But he doesn’t come across to me as a hard-core terrorist. … Somebody brainwashed him into this, or talked him into doing it, gave him the idea and kept feeding him that the Blacks are taking over,” he said.

Harris Stanfield was working at the store when the shooting occurred and pressed federal prosecutors to include charges relating to the victims who were not killed or physically injured during the shooting. Those people, she said, experienced “a totally different set of trauma” that needed to be recognized. But in terms of punishment, she said, “[o]bviously, he should not be released. Whether he gets the death penalty or not, that is not one thing that I would think about. I’m not into death like that. I don’t wish death on anyone. For any reason,” she said.


Bill Hutchinson and Alysha Webb, Son of Buffalo mass shoot­ing vic­tim fears death penal­ty will make sus­pect a mar­tyr’, ABC News, September 1, 2022; Video, Buffalo vic­tims’ fam­i­lies express con­cern over death penal­ty against gun­man, ABC News, September 12022.

Photo cour­tesy of ABC News.