The suspect in the shooting deaths of 51 worshipers at two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques has pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder and terrorism charges in a surprise deal with prosecutors.
Brenton Tarrant, 29, an Australian who espoused a white supremacist ideology, had been scheduled to go on trial in June.
Instead, Tarrant appeared in court via video link on Thursday local time and told the judge he would change his plea from not guilty to guilty of 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism.
He will remain in custody until his scheduled sentencing hearing on May 1.
The abrupt change of plea comes one year after the deadliest massacre in New Zealand sent the country into grieving. The violence prompted lawmakers to ban most semi-automatic weapons and the government held nationwide gun buyback programs.
The gunman reversing his plea means the trial, which lawyers expected to stretch on for six weeks, will no longer take place.
Jamal Green, a spokesperson for the Al Noor mosque, one the sites in which the gunman opened fire, said the plea was “sudden and unexpected,” but provided some degree of “peace in the chaos,” according to New Zealand’s public broadcaster.
Before Tarrant carried out the deadly attack, he uploaded a hate-filled post to the anonymous message board 8chan, which was criticized, including by the site’s creator, for not acting quickly enough to remove content aimed at inciting violence. Tarrant’s bloody spree was livestreamed on Facebook for 17 minutes before it was removed.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the guilty pleas give some relief to survivors and others affected by the massacre “whose lives were shattered by what happened on March 15.”
“These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial,” Ardern said.
The development came as New Zealand and the rest of the world attempts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The country is beginning a four-week lockdown with the hopes of decreasing the disease’s transmission.