The man who opened fire on the New York City subway last year, wounding 10, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges on Tuesday.
Frank R. James, 63, faces a possible life sentence for the attack, which took place during the busy morning rush hour on a Manhattan-bound train at the 36th Street station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
In Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday, James pleaded guilty to all 11 charges against him, 10 of which were for terrorist acts and one of which was for use of a firearm.
“James’s admission of guilt to all eleven counts of the superseding indictment acknowledges the terror and pain he caused," Breon Peace, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement. "This guilty plea is an important step towards holding James fully accountable and helping the victims of the defendant’s violence and our great city heal."
James put on a gas mask and detonated two gas canisters before beginning the April 12, 2022, rampage, shooting at least 33 times, according to police. More than 20 people were injured, 10 from gunshot wounds, with the rest being treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries. There were no deaths.
James managed to escape from the scene, fleeing the subway in the chaotic aftermath of the attack, and remained at large for more than 30 hours, leaving New Yorkers terrified while police swarmed the city looking for a suspect. He was eventually caught in the East Village and arrested after several civilians saw him and contacted police. One of the tipsters, Zack Tahhan, a Syrian man who moved to the US five years prior and who works for a security system service, was hailed as a hero after spotting him on a security camera and alerting the police.
James may have also tipped off police himself, according to the Associated Press and several other outlets, but an NYPD spokesperson declined to comment, saying tips reported to Crime Stoppers are anonymous.
Police recovered several of James’s possessions at the scene of the attack, including a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun, three extended Glock-type magazines, a hatchet, bullets and bullet fragments, two detonated and two undetonated smoke grenades, gasoline, and fireworks.
In YouTube videos prior to the attack, James, who is Black, went on racist and derogatory rants against Black people and other people of color. He also complained about the presence of unhoused people on the subway and criticized NYC mayor Eric Adams’s policies. In one video, he called 9/11 “the most beautiful day in the history of this country.” According to federal prosecutors, James’s videos also referenced conspiracy theories and threatened violence, at one point saying he “should have gotten a gun, and just started shooting motherfuckers.”
New York City employs about 36,000 police officers, 3,500 of which are assigned to the NYPD’s transit bureau, AM New York reported less than three months before the shooting. In spite of this, according to the New York Times, no officers were present at the Sunset Park station at the time of the shooting, though they had patrolled the station earlier that morning. Authorities also said that the station’s security camera had been malfunctioning.
In a letter to the judge on Thursday, federal prosecutors recommended James be sentenced to 31 to 37 years in prison — or, if he "does not clearly demonstrate acceptance of responsibility," 40 years to life.
In a statement following his guilty plea, Mia Eisner-Grynberg and Amanda David, the public defenders representing James, hit back against the sentencing recommendation, arguing that the government's "requested punishment serves no legitimate sentencing purpose."
"Mr. James has accepted responsibility for his crimes since he turned himself in to law enforcement," they said. "A just sentence in this case will carefully balance the harm he caused with his age, his health, and the Bureau of Prisons’ notoriously inadequate medical care. Unfortunately, as the government just stated, even a sentence that would vastly exceed Mr. James’s natural life is not enough for them."
In his first court appearance days after the shooting, James was ordered to remain in jail ahead of his trial, with federal prosecutor Sara Winik saying he posed a “serious risk of danger to the community.”
“In this case, the defendant terrifyingly opened fire on passengers on a crowded subway train, interrupting their morning commute in a way the city hasn’t seen in more than 20 years,” Winik said, seemingly referencing 9/11. “The defendant’s attack was premeditated, was carefully planned, and it caused terror among the victims and our entire city.”
The American Public Health Association says gun violence in the US is a public health crisis. It is a leading cause of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths annually. As of Jan. 3, at least 104 people have already died from gun violence this year, and another 198 have died by suicide, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. In 2022, more than 20,000 people died from gun violence, with over 24,000 additional gun deaths by suicide.