Kimberly Salter stood in court to face her husband’s killer for the first time on Wednesday. With a hand on her heart and wearing red that she said represented her husband’s shed blood, she simply read three passages from the Bible on God’s love and his vengeance.
Salter was among a string of family members who shared Scripture in statements to Payton Gendron, the 19-year-old who killed 10 Black people and wounded three others at Tops grocery story in Buffalo last May. Police detained him before he could kill more.
Gendron made his racist motivations clear. He had posted a manifesto saying he wanted to preserve white power in the US, and he drove three hours to Buffalo to target a majority Black neighborhood. During the shooting, which he live-streamed, he apologized to one white person whom he shot and wounded by accident.
He pleaded guilty to murder and hate-motivated terrorism state charges in November last year.
The East Buffalo neighborhood where the mass shooting took place has exponentially more churches than grocery stores and a thick Christian community. Many of the victims, like security guard Aaron Salter, were believers and active in their churches.
At the sentencing hearing in New York state court, Kimberly Salter stated that “God is love, and he offers love to each and every one of us.” The widow recited John 3:16, but then she read the entirety of Psalm 35, an imprecatory prayer:
“Let those be put to shame and brought to dishonor who seek after my life. Let those be turned back and brought to confusion who plot my hurt. Let them be like chaff before the wind and let the angel of the Lord chase them. Let their way be dark and slippery. … All my bones shall say, “Lord who is like you? Delivering the poor from him to who is too strong for him. Yes, the poor and the needy from him who plunders them?”
As she finished the psalm, she said, “And so it is. This is the reading from God’s word. Thank you.” She sat.
The hearing was full of raw grief. One man lunged at Gendron during a family member’s statement, causing a brief scuffle where police escorted Gendron out of the courtroom. Police returned with Gendron after a few minutes and the hearing resumed.
The statements from victims’ family members drew from a gospel of justice, vengeance, and forgiveness.
Simone Crawley, the granddaughter of victim Ruth Whitfield, told the shooter, “We had a praying grandmother, who taught us that the battle is not yours, it is the Lord’s.”
Michelle Spight, who lost an aunt and a cousin in the shooting, read a statement from Pamela Young Pritchett, the daughter of victim Pearl Young. She mentioned that Young had been shot several times so that the family could not have an open casket at her funeral. Pritchett said she had to decide whether that last image of her mother’s disfigured face would “take up residency in my mind.”
“Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right and pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise,” she read from Philippians. “This will take up residency in my mind.”
Then Spight read a statement from Fred Morrison, whose brother Margus Morrison was killed. Morrison shared that his mother, since her son’s death, had a stroke and can’t speak.
Spight turned to face Gendron and read from Morrison’s statement: “There is One, Payton, that sees all, and you will not escape the fury of the Almighty. One Scripture is true in the Bible: ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord. And he will repay.’” People clapped in the courtroom.
“I pray he is merciful, because I, too, need mercy,” she read on. “I pray he is merciful to let you live so you can be reminded of the innocent blood … behind your calculated, sinister, and demonic act that caused my beloved brother to be snatched from our family. If you do not know God, Payton, I invite you to find him. Because you are going to need him. With deep sorrow, Fred Morrison, brother of Margus Morrison.”
Others also quoted the “vengeance is mine” Bible verse. Wayne Jones, the son of victim Celestine Chaney, said he had come across the footage of the shooting: “I watched you shoot her once, reload, and shoot her again.”
“You have to live with this one, bro, just as I have to live with this every day,” said Jones, who was wearing a cross necklace. “One day I hope you find it in your heart to apologize to those ten families … You don’t even know Black people that much to hate them. You learned this on the internet.”
“I hope you do pray for forgiveness,” said Tamika Harper, the niece of victim Geraldine Talley. “You know, not forgiving, I’d be blocking my own blessing. Do I hate you? No. Do I want you to die? No, I want you stay alive, and think about this every day of your life. Think about my family and the other nine families that you have destroyed forever. I’m going to pray for you, and I want everyone to pray for all the families, that we can get through this. Right now, I feel like my life will never be the same.”
Another Talley family member said he forgave the gunman “not for your sake, but for mine.”
Zeneta Everhart’s son Zaire Goodman was shot in the neck but survived. He continues to face ongoing medical issues as well as trauma. Everhart said she won’t forgive because that “puts this tragedy in the laps of the victims and neither I nor my son will accept the responsibility for this terroristic act.” She said the shooter is the one who will “need to ask for forgiveness.”
And some just offered anger.
“I’m not going to be nice,” said Barbara Massey Mapps, the sister of victim Katherine Massey. “You killed my sister … I want to personally choke you.”
“I’m sad and I hate you,” said Deja Brown, the daughter of Andre Mackneil, who was buying a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son when he was killed. “I will never forgive you. It wasn’t my dad’s time to go. Who are you to think you control that?”
Gendron, who cried at one point in the hearing, did stand and give a statement apologizing: “I cannot express how much I regret all the decisions I made leading up to my actions on May 14. I did a terrible thing that day. I shot and killed people because they were Black. Looking back now I can’t believe I actually did it. I believed what I read online and acted out of hate … I do not want anyone to be inspired by me and what I did.”
Someone in the courtroom began screaming, wailing, and crying during his statement, yelling that he didn’t mean what he was saying.
Judge Susan Eagan sentenced Gendron to life in prison without the possibility of parole. New York does not have the death penalty.
“There are no mitigating factors to be considered,” said Eagan.
He faces additional federal charges including the possibility of the death penalty.
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