The emotional testimony of survivors and families of the victims began Wednesday at the federal sentencing hearing for the gunman who killed 23 and injured dozens more at a Walmart store in El Paso, one of the deadliest attacks against Latinos in Modern United States History.
The gunman, Patrick Crusius, pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes in February after federal prosecutors notified the court they would not seek the death penalty. State authorities have made it clear they could prosecute him in a separate capital murder case that is still pending.
In the federal case, in which testimony on a possible conviction was expected to last at least two days, prosecutors agreed with the defense on a proposed sentence of 90 consecutive life sentences to reflect the 90 charges, including 45 hate crimes.
Emotions have remained raw in the four years since Mr. Crusius stormed a Walmart in the predominantly Latino border city, unleashing a firepower rampage minutes after posting a hate-filled manifesto online deploring « the Hispanic invasion of Texas ».
El Paso, which regularly draws shoppers and workers from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez just across the border, has long been seen as a haven for migrants from Mexico and other countries. Immigrants make up about a quarter of the population.
Family members of victims filled the courtroom in downtown El Paso Wednesday and wept loudly as Mr. Crusius entered the room in navy blue overalls. He swiveled lazily in his chair as the magistrate, David Guaderama, read out the charges on which he had been convicted, and occasionally smiled or rolled his eyes as family members shared stories of grief and anger.
« Why are we the ones who suffer and not you? » said one of the survivors, Genesis Davila, addressing the gunman. He was fundraising with his soccer team outside the Walmart when the attack occurred, injuring his father and mother and killing his coach. “No one invited you to our quiet town,” he said.
Prosecutors said Mr. Crusius, 24, who is white, drove 700 miles from his home in Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb, to the Walmart supercenter near a popular mall. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle he had purchased online, the gunman chased shoppers and workers through the parking lot, down aisles and behind cash registers.
In his anti-immigrant manifesto, Mr. Crusius promoted a claim widely espoused by white supremacists that elites in the United States and Europe are replacing white Europeans and their descendants with immigrants from non-white majority countries.
Mr. Crusius told detectives he killed and injured people in the store because he believed they were of « national Hispanic origin, » prosecutors said in describe a statement of fact associated with the guilty plea.
They said he told authorities he identified himself as a « white nationalist, motivated to kill Hispanics because they were emigrating to the United States. » He said he chose El Paso « to deter Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants from coming to the United States, » the prosecutors’ statement said.
Prosecutors said the attacker appeared to have taken direct inspiration from the mass murder of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019, an attack that left 51 people dead.
Witnesses described how a barrage of fire filled the shop with smoke as workers and customers, many covered in blood, ran for their lives. Mr. Crusius fled in his car, but surrendered moments after being pulled over by a state trooper, admitting « I was the one who fired the shot. »
THE including victims an Army Veteran, a mother protecting her 2 month old son, a German citizen living on the Mexican side of the border, Mexican citizens, and many more.
The defense said it would release its statements after the victims’ presentations, possibly on Thursday.
In court Wednesday, relatives of the victims came forward with a series of emotionally charged statements, a combination of letters honoring the lives lost and angry statements directed at the gunman. Mr. Crusius sometimes shook his head and spun in his chair, as if he were listening to a song only he could hear.
« They were happy people who didn’t bother anyone, » said Alfredo Hernandez, a family member of two of the victims, Maribel Loya and Leonardo Campos. « They woke up early that Saturday morning to have their dogs groomed, but they didn’t know they were going to be killed. »
The Federal Bureau of Investigation brought in a certified emotional support dog, a friendly black Labrador named Beaumont, to take the podium with a young victim, Kaitlyn Melendez, who was 9 years old in 2019.
She said she and her grandparents had stopped at Walmart for candy and planned to drive from there to a nearby movie theater.
Her grandfather, David Johnson, 63, died protecting her and her grandmother.
“You and your sick, messed up brain. Do you know how pathetic you are? Kaitlyn said, addressing the gunman. “I hope you get what you deserve. I was 9 when you took away my childhood; because of you, every person with a backpack I see is a threat.
At that, Mr. Crusius rolled his eyes, smiled and shrugged.
“You can roll your eyes and smile and smile all you want,” Kaitlyn said. « I hope you rot in there. »
Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.