The federal government will not seek the death penalty for the man accused of massacring 23 people in a hate crime at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

“The United States of America hereby notifies the Court and Defendant PATRICK WOOD CRUSIUS that the Government will not seek the death penalty in the instant case,” prosecutors said in a one-sentence filing. The Justice Department declined to comment on the reasons for the decision not to seek the death penalty.

The Justice Department has not sought the death penalty in a new case since Attorney General Merrick Garland took office in 2021. Garland and President Joe Biden have both spoken in opposition to the federal death penalty, and Garland has imposed a moratorium on its use pending a review of policies and procedures. 

Patrick Crusius, 24, of Allen, Texas, is charged with 23 counts of hate crime resulting in death, 23 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder in a crime of violence, 22 counts of hate crime in an attempt to kill, and 22 counts of use of a firearm during a crime of violence. With the death penalty off the table, the maximum federal sentence he faces is life in prison.

Crusius allegedly killed 23 people and wounded 22 others in an Aug. 3, 2019, attack on the Cielo Vista Walmart. A screed allegedly posted by Crusius moments before the attack on a website often used by white supremacists said the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

In previous court hearings, Crusius’ defense team has said the death penalty was inappropriate in this case. They said they have submitted 750 pages of mitigating evidence from experts, including information on Crusius’ mental health, that would make him ineligible for execution.

Defense attorneys declined to comment on Tuesday, citing a gag order by the judge overseeing the state case against Crusius.

The trial on federal charges is scheduled for January 2024. Crusius also faces 23 capital murder charges in state court that could carry the death penalty, but no trial date on those charges has yet been set.

District Attorney Bill Hicks, speaking at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, reiterated that his office would continue to pursue the death penalty on the state capital murder charges, while also monitoring developments in the federal case.

However, Hicks added, “the defendant is in federal custody and the state is not able to  prosecute the defendant until he is out of federal custody and in state custody.” 

Hicks said he did not know when, or if, the federal government will release him to the state.

“There are too many ifs, and I don’t have the answers to that right now,” he said.

Jamie hugs her son, Julian, as they visit the El Paso County Healing Garden at Ascarate Park for the first time on July 27, 2022. Jamie worked at a bank inside Walmart in 2019 and witnessed the shooting just weeks before Julian was born. She asked that their full names not be used. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso reactions

Chris Antcliff, a former justice with the 8th Court of Appeals, said it’s a major mistake for the feds not to seek the death penalty.

“This guy killed 23 El Pasoans, and he came into town intentionally just to kill Hispanics,” Antcliff said, “and for our government not to seek the death penalty, when it is available to them, that is a travesty.”

However, Antcliff said he is confident that Hicks, the new El Paso district attorney, will seek the death penalty.

“He is putting that office back together and bringing back competent and experienced prosecutors to prosecute the Crusius case. I’m confident the District Attorney’s Office will seek the death penalty and will not waiver from that,” he said.

Hicks was appointed district attorney by Gov. Greg Abbott last month following the resignation of Yvonne Rosales, who faced criticism over multiple actions during her two years in office, including her handling of the Walmart shooting case.

The 409th District Court, which is handling the Crusius case on the state side, has scheduled a hearing with prosecutors and defense lawyers for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 25. The status hearing was set in December and was contingent on the U.S. attorney’s final decision. 

“The decision by the U.S. attorney now makes the state’s case considerably more important,” Antcliff said. 

Upon hearing the news on Tuesday that the death penalty would not be sought, Jamie, a bank teller who was inside the Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, became distraught. 

“I hope he suffers a lot and spends the rest of his life rotting in jail,” she said. El Paso Matters is not identifying Jamie by her real names for security reasons. She did not want to comment further.

The family of one of the Walmart victims, who did not want their name to be used because of a gag order issued by a state district court judge, said that Crusius deserves the death penalty – even if it comes from the state trial.

The federal death penalty

Although the Justice Department hasn’t sought the death penalty since Biden and Garland took office, a decision late last year suggested that the Justice Department might continue to pursue the death penalty in terror attacks.

That case involves a 2017 attack in which Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people and injured more than a dozen by plowing a rented pickup truck into a crowded New York City bike path.

The Justice Department under President Donald Trump sought the death penalty against Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant who prosecutors said wanted to “further the ideological goals” of the Islamic State.

His defense lawyers asked the Justice Department to withdraw the death penalty in the case, as the office has done 25 times since Garland took office, the New York Times reported.

The Justice Department decided in September 2022 to continue to seek the death penalty. Saipov’s trial began last week in New York City.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...