Patrick Crusius, the suspect in a 2019 Texas mass shooting allegedly prompted by anti-immigrant hate, has changed his plea to guilty in a United States federal court.
The switch on Wednesday comes two and a half weeks after the US Department of Justice announced that it would not pursue the death penalty in the shooting, which killed 23 people, many of whom were Latino, at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso.
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Crusius’s defence lawyers had called on Saturday for a new hearing in federal court to allow the defendant to update his plea from not guilty.
He faces 23 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, 23 counts of using a firearm to commit murder and violence, 22 counts of hate crimes with an attempt to kill and 22 counts of firearm use in relation to a crime of violence.
On August 3, 2019, Crusius is accused of leaving his home in Allen, Texas, and driving nearly 10 hours to reach El Paso. Prosecutors say he travelled with an GP WASR-10 semi-automatic rifle that he had purchased on the internet, along with 1,000 rounds of hollow-point bullets.
He stopped at a Walmart Supercenter store, where he allegedly opened fire. Prior to the shooting, prosecutors say Crusius posted a nearly 2,350-word manifesto online, laying out a hate-filled ideology premised on the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which posits that white people in the US and Europe risk being “replaced” by non-white immigrants.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Crusius allegedly wrote in the statement, which claimed immigrants would take control of the government in Texas, leading to a “political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country”.
Crusius, who was 21 years old at the time, was later pulled over at an intersection and arrested. El Paso Detective Adrian Garcia said in an arrest warrant affidavit that the suspect stepped out of his vehicle with his hands up and told officers, “I’m the shooter.”
The attack is considered the seventh deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. About two dozen people were wounded in the gunfire. One victim, Guillermo Garcia, spent nearly nine months in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries.
Garcia, a 36-year-old father nicknamed “Tank”, had been standing outside the Walmart selling drinks as part of a fundraiser for his daughter’s youth football team, the El Paso Times reported. He was shot in the back as he tried to shield his family from the gunfire.
More than 82 percent of El Paso’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the US census. The city forms a large metropolitan area that spans from the state border with New Mexico south to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.
In an interview with The Associated Press, one of the shooting survivors, Adria Gonzalez, denounced federal prosecutors’ decision not to pursue the death penalty in the case.
“It’s a slap in the face for us Latinos,” she told the news agency.
Gonzalez was inside the Walmart shopping with her mother when the shooting began, and she is credited with guiding other shoppers to safety. She explained that the trauma from the experience has yet to subside: “We’re the ones that saw everything, and we’re still hurting inside.”
Defence lawyers have previously argued that Crusius should not receive the death penalty, citing the defendant’s neurological and mental disabilities.
President Joe Biden had previously campaigned on abolishing the federal death penalty.
While Biden himself has not issued any formal directives on the subject since assuming office, under his leadership, the Justice Department has issued a moratorium on federal executions while it reviews its procedures. The department has also not pursued the death penalty in any new cases.
Ahead of Wednesday’s plea change, the immigration reform group America’s Voice took to Twitter to draw parallels between the attack in El Paso and rhetoric in the Republican Party, accusing party leaders of spreading the conspiracy theories that Crusius allegedly espoused.
The US House of Representatives recently held its first two committee hearings on immigration and border policy under the new congressional leadership sworn in last month. The most recent was held on Tuesday in the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.
“The House GOP has used two hearings to firmly anchor ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement’ conspiracies in Congress as part of their relentless political focus on immigrants as a threat to America,” Vanessa Cardenas, the executive director of America’s Voice, said in a post.
Republicans, she added, “are helping to elevate a dangerous strain of white nationalism”.
The group says it has identified at least 80 Republican candidates in November’s midterm elections who promoted the “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracy theories.
Those criticisms were echoed on Tuesday when Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin accused “extreme” forces in the Republican Party of stoking “fear about a ‘foreign invasion’ [and] paranoia about the racist and anti-Semitic ‘great replacement’ mythology”.
Republican lawmakers have pushed the Biden administration to do more to tighten border security, linking the issue to crime and drug deaths in the US. They also warn that an influx of asylum seekers could strain government resources.
“Cartels are leveraging the chaos at the border,” James Comer, the Republican chairman of the oversight committee, said in a statement on Tuesday. “They are using their human smuggling operations to overwhelm US Border Patrol agents with large migrant groups, often placing migrants in peril.”
Immigration remains one of the most divisive issues in US politics. This month, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on Title 42, a policy enacted under former President Donald Trump that allowed border agents to expel asylum seekers in the name of public health.
Although the policy was set to expire in December, after a judge called it “arbitrary and capricious”, Republican lawmakers have pushed to keep the order in place.
Mexico, meanwhile, has urged the US to enact tighter gun control measures in the wake of the El Paso shooting. At least eight Mexican citizens were among those killed.
“We think that these unfortunate events, which occurred in the US, should lead to reflection, analysis and the decision to control the indiscriminate sale of weapons,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at the time.