Lawyers for Buffalo suspect Payton Gendron say they may be seeking a psychiatric defense

BUFFALO — Payton Gendron, who is accused of committing a racially motivated massacre here at a Tops Friendly Markets store in May, may seek to introduce a psychiatric defense in his state terrorism and hate crime case, his attorneys said at a court hearing Thursday .

The accused 18-year-old gunman allegedly drove three hours from his hometown of Binghamton, New York, to systematically gun down blacks, having disguised the site on a previous occasion. Investigators believe he posted a lengthy screed online prior to the shooting detailing his white supremacist motivations and ideology.

defense Attorneys must make a formal notice by October 6, the date of their next court appearance, if they decide to proceed with a psychiatric case. Erie County Court Judge Susan Eagan granted the attorneys a three-month extension of their statutory time limit, which expired a few days ago.

The legal team had searched for six months to make its decision and said there was a mountain of evidence to be reviewed and clinical evaluations to be conducted. At the hearing, prosecutors turned over a terabyte of evidence.

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“We need to flesh out the nature of the mental illness that we claim might exist,” said Brian K. Parker, one of the defense attorneys. “We also have to assert the way this forms a psychiatric defense.”

New York law requires criminal defendants to provide advance notice of a psychiatric trial defense, and prosecutors can make their own assessment of the defendant when notice is given. A not guilty case of insanity must meet a high legal threshold: a grand jury would have to determine that a person was so insane at the time of the crime that they could not assess the seriousness and consequences of their crime.

A defendant can also argue that he was suffering from an “extreme emotional disorder” at the time of the crime, which would make him eligible for a manslaughter conviction rather than murder. The bar to prove this standard is significantly lower.

The alleged shooter’s attorneys may have little leeway to argue that mental illness was a factor, as evidence of planning and premeditated behavior tends to weigh heavily against psychiatric defenses. Gendron faces charges including murder and hate-motivated domestic terrorism in state court and hate crimes and weapons in federal court.

While New York does not allow state-sponsored executions, the federal weapons charge entitles him to the federal death penalty. Attorney General Merrick Garland has not yet said if he will request it.

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Gendron — clad in a neon orange prison gown, handcuffed and handcuffed — appeared before Eagan just three days after the latest American mass shooting, an attack on a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, that killed seven and wounded dozens more .

Among those in the Buffalo courtroom Thursday was Michelle Spight, 51. She lost her aunt and cousin in the May 14 shooting that killed 10 victims and wounded three. Spight said she intends to return for all future court appearances until Gendron’s case is resolved.

The mass murder in Highland Park and a shooting spree at a schoolhouse weeks earlier Uvalde, Texas, is “very triggering,” she said outside the courthouse. “Something has to stop – that has to stop.”

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Eagan turned down an offer by defense attorneys to delay the case in state court by a year while another group of attorneys stepped into the case The federal hate crime case argues with the Justice Department that it shouldn’t be asking for the death penalty. Prosecutors said proceeding with her case would hamper efforts to save her client’s life in federal court.

“What could be more urgent… than to do everything in our power to prevent our government from killing him?” argued attorney Robert Cutting.

Prosecutors said precedents did not support putting their state case aside while federal matters were worked out, and the judge declined to put the case on hold.

“This court owes a timely resolution of this matter to both the defendant and the people,” Eagan said.

Spight said it would have been “terrifying and disheartening” for her and other grieving family members to prolong an already lengthy court case.

“Especially when all the facts and evidence are in place,” she added. “Let’s get on with it – no point in wasting time.” Lawyers for Buffalo suspect Payton Gendron say they may be seeking a psychiatric defense

James Brien

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