The man accused of killing over 50 Muslims in an attack that sent shockwaves across the globe is pleading not guilty, reports The New York Times. In a brief court appearance on Friday morning, the Australian native submitted the plea through an audiovisual link from Auckland Prison, the city's only maximum security jail.
Brenton Tarrant is alleged to have killed 51 people and injured several more in a murder spree that targeted two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. By pleading not guilty, the accused is dragging families of the victims, as well as the surviving victims themselves, into a lengthy and emotionally charged trial.
When Tarrant filed his not guilty plea, the NYT reported that there was an "audible intake of breath" from the courtroom, where 80 seats were filled with survivors of the horrific attack, as well as their families.
A majority of the hearing was a discussion among the judge, prosecutors, and Tarrant's counsel, which "cannot be reported for legal reasons."
Tarrant is currently charged with the murders of 51 people, in addition to the attempted murder of 40 more. He is also being charged under terrorism laws. If is he is found guilty, he could face life in prison without parole. The sentence has never been delivered in New Zealand's history; the longest previous punishment had been a jail time of 30 years after a man killed three people.
Many legal analysts, such as law professor Chris Gallavin, have suggested that the not guilty plea is surprising, considering the defendant had live streamed part of his attack on Facebook in addition to posting a white supremacist manifesto online.
In the manifesto, Tarrant claimed that targeting Muslims was revenge for the Rotherham child sex ring, per Action.org. The sex ring was a scandal in the United Kingdom where Muslim immigrants groomed and raped over 1,400 British girls. He also called himself an "eco-facist," and blamed immigrants for hurting the environment due to their high birth rates.
Many are worried that the trial will serve as a platform to help Tarrant broadcast his views.
Tarrant is currently being represented by Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson. It is unknown how they came to represent the accused, as Tarrant had originally claimed that he was going to represent himself. It was determined in Tarrant's last court appearance that he was mentally fit to enter the plea.
The accused will also appear in court in August for a procedural hearing. The actual trial is slated to begin on May 4, 2020.