On January 12, 2024, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will seek a death sentence for Payton Gendron, the then-18-year-old who killed 10 Black people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York in 2022. This is the first capital case authorized by Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Biden Administration’s DOJ. The announcement came twenty months after the mass shooting and eleven months after Mr. Gendron pled guilty to state first degree murder charges and was sentenced to multiple sentences of life without parole. Although New York does not have the death penalty, the federal government has jurisdiction to seek the death penalty in any state in the country if there is a federal interest and alleged violations of federal statutes.

The federal charges against Mr. Gendron include hate crimes, similar to the charges brought against Robert Bowers after he shot and killed eleven worshippers at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. Mr. Bowers was also charged federally and received a death sentence in July 2023. Mr. Bowers and Sayfullo Saipov, for whom the DOJ also sought but failed to secure a death sentence, were initially charged under the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr.

Mr. Gendron was just 18 years old when he posted on social media about his intentions to kill Black people and then traveled to Buffalo armed with a semiautomatic rifle. Family members of the victims have not been unified about whether the DOJ should seek a death sentence. Last summer, a number of wrongful death civil lawsuits were filed by family members and witnesses to the shooting against social media companies Meta, Google, and YouTube, alleging that Mr. Gendron was radicalized online by white supremacists who encouraged racial hatred and violence.

Mr. Gendron’s young age will be an important factor at trial. On January 11, 2024, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that late-adolescents aged 18, 19 and 20 were more like juveniles than adults because of their undeveloped brains, and therefore less criminally culpable than older adults. For that reason, the Court held that no one younger than 21 years old could face the state’s most severe criminal sentence, which is life without the possibility of parole. This ruling echoes other state courts that have been similarly persuaded by brains scans and other scientific evidence that confirms the lesser culpability of late-adolescents. The United States Supreme Court held in 2005 that juveniles under the age of 18 were not eligible for the death penalty for similar reasons, but more sophisticated scientific developments in recent years have demonstrated that the same science relied upon by the U.S. Supreme Court also applies to 18, 19 and 20 year-olds.

At his state sentencing hearing, Mr. Gendron expressed remorse for his actions and apologized to the victims’ families. He also offered to plead guilty to the federal charges in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole, but the DOJ rejected this offer. Federal capital trials typically take many weeks and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in prosecution, defense, security, and court costs. Automatic appeals will follow any conviction and death sentence and typically last many years or even decades before conclusion.