EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - The Texas man accused of deliberately targeting Mexicans in a shooting spree that killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart store pleaded not guilty on Thursday in his first court appearance.
Patrick Crusius, 21, was indicted last month for capital murder and will face the death penalty if he is convicted, the El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza said.
Another 26 people were wounded during the shooting.
Crusius strolled into the courtroom trailing his two lawyers. Dressed in a navy sports jacket, white shirt and grey slacks, he betrayed no emotion and only spoke twice, answering “yes, your honour” to Judge Sam Medrano when asked if his name was correct on the indictment, and “not guilty” when asked for his plea. He was in and out of the courtroom in about three minutes.
Security had been beefed up in and around the courthouse. Sheriff’s deputies set up metal detectors and X-ray machines to screen everyone entering the building. The courtroom seating 100 was packed.
“It’s our intention to try the case in the courtroom” and not in the media, defence attorney Mark Stevens said after the arraignment, adding that he did not want to make the pain worse for victims’ family members.
“There are two sides to every story. There are two sides to this story,” Stevens said. “It’s our job to make sure the story of Patrick Crusius is told.”
Another defence attorney, Joe Spencer, added that “Mr. Stevens and I are morally opposed to the death penalty” and that the pair would work hard to spare the alleged shooter that fate.
The Texas killings were followed just 13 hours later by a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, where a gunman wearing body armour and a mask killed nine people and wounded 27 others before he was shot dead by police.
The back-to-back massacres sparked a political outcry, with El Paso native and Democratic Party presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke demanding the mandatory confiscation of the assault-style rifles often used in mass shootings.
The El Paso shooting prompted powerful Texas Republicans including Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to retreat somewhat on their staunch defence of gun rights.
Both floated the idea of requiring universal background checks on people seeking to buy guns and talked about “red flag” laws that would allow people to petition a court to have an individual’s guns taken away. Even so, no concrete legislative action has yet taken place in Texas.
Crusius is accused of driving 11 hours to El Paso from his hometown of Allen, near Dallas, on Aug. 3 and firing at shoppers with an AK-47 rifle inside the Walmart store. He surrendered to officers who confronted him outside.
Crusius confessed while surrendering and told police he was targeting Mexicans, according to an El Paso police affidavit released days after the shooting. Most of those killed were Latinos.
A four-page statement believed to have been written by the suspect and posted on 8chan, an online message board often used by extremists, called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Reporting by Julio Cesar-Chavez in El Paso and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Tom Brown