The man accused of killing 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has pleaded not guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act.
The plea raises the distinct possibility that the shooter will use the trial, which is scheduled to begin next May, as a chance to further propagate his bigotry in a similar manner as Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik. This in turn will likely bring more pain and heartache to the families of the Christchurch victims.
There were already signs that the trial was bringing other bigots out of the woodwork. As Radio New Zealand first reported, one man was arrested outside the courthouse Friday for making racist remarks and playing Nazi music as one of the survivors walked away from Christchurch High Court. He was subsequently charged with disorderly behavior.
The trial has also raised difficult questions for New Zealand’s media on how best to cover it, especially since High Court Justice Cameron Mander lifted restrictions on publishing photos of the suspect. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the suspect used a televised court appearance to flash a white power sign.
In response, New Zealand’s five major media organizations signed an agreement in late June where they promised not to unnecessarily promote the accused gunman’s ideology during the trial. No white supremacist “imagery, symbols or signals” will be broadcast or published, and statements actively championing white supremacist ideals will also receive very limited coverage.
The decision from New Zealand’s media makes sense, especially considering what happened during Breivik’s trial.
After killing 77 people in twin attacks in Oslo and the Utoya Island summer camp, Breivik — whom the alleged Christchurch shooter touted as an inspiration for his own mass shooting — used his trial as a chance to justify his actions, arguing at length that he was acting in self-defense against multiculturalism and the “Islamization” of Norway. Toward the end of the trial, the families of Breivik’s victims — most of whom were teenagers — walked out in protest over Breivik’s his continued attempts to justify the massacre.
Breivik was eventually sentenced to 21 years in prison, which is the maximum allowed under Norwegian law, although the sentence can be extended every five years if he is still deemed a threat to the public.
The alleged Christchurch shooter’s not guilty plea has sparked anger among relatives of the deceased. “[The trial prospect is] hurtful for the families,” Yama Nabi, whose father was killed in the mosque shooting, told The Guardian. “They don’t need anymore. They got their hearts broken.”
Chris Gallavin, a law professor at New Zealand’s Massey University, told The New York Times that the trial will be extremely challenging for the court itself. “The logistics of this case will be a nightmare,” he said. “[The heightened security] is going to be incredibly disruptive for the flow of an already overworked court.”
There have also already been copycat attacks with the same M.O. as the Christchurch shooter. In April, barely a month after the Christchurch shooting, a far-right lone-wolf attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego, killing one. The suspect in that case cited the Christchurch shooter as inspiration and also attempted to livestream the incident, as the New Zealand suspect had.