ATLANTA — A 22-year-old man facing the death penalty for a shooting rampage at a string of spas in the Atlanta area pleaded not guilty to four murder charges on Tuesday, raising the possibility of a protracted court battle over one of the deadliest U.S. mass shootings of 2021.
The man, Robert Aaron Long, had previously pleaded guilty to four murder counts and other criminal charges in Cherokee County, where the March 16 shooting spree began at a suburban strip mall. He was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences plus 35 years for those crimes.
But Mr. Long also faces four additional murder charges stemming from attacks committed in the city of Atlanta, where the Fulton County prosecutor, Fani T. Willis, is seeking the death penalty.
Mr. Long admitted to the shootings, which left eight people dead, shortly after his capture, according to law enforcement. In a previous court appearance, he said that he struggled to control his urges to see prostitutes and use pornography, and said that he committed the killings to “punish” sex industry workers.
Ms. Willis’s office is seeking enhanced penalties for the Atlanta killings, arguing that Mr. Long targeted the victims because of their “actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender.” Mr. Long is white; six of the people killed, including all of the Atlanta victims, were women of Asian descent.
Mr. Long appeared in a downtown Atlanta courtroom on Tuesday in a hearing that lasted just a few minutes. He was wearing a face mask, glasses and a gray suit jacket. He opted not to speak, preferring to allow one of his lawyers to enter his not guilty plea on his behalf.
Mr. Long’s previous plea, in July, was part of a deal that allowed him to avoid going to trial in Cherokee County, where prosecutors said they, too, would have pursued the death penalty. Ms. Willis has said that lawyers for Mr. Long had approached her office seeking a similar arrangement.
But while Ms. Willis, a Democrat, has said she is generally open to considering plea deals, she has indicated that she will continue to pursue the death penalty in Mr. Long’s case, at least for now. Some of the victims’ family members also believe that execution is the proper punishment for Mr. Long.
“If you lose a very beloved member of the family in such a tragic and senseless way, you want to see the full extent of the law, and justice be done,” said Byung J. Pak, a former U.S. attorney known as BJay who is representing the families of two victims, Yong Ae Yue and Suncha Kim.
The question of whether Mr. Long was motivated by racism or gender bias has been a particularly sensitive one because the crimes were committed during a time of heightened concern about a nationwide wave of hate-based episodes targeting Asian Americans.
A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
- Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.
- In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.
In July, District Attorney Shannon Wallace of Cherokee County said investigators found no evidence Mr. Long was motivated by racism, but she said she would have pursued enhanced penalties based on gender bias if Mr. Long’s case had gone to trial there.
The hate crime sentencing enhancements Mr. Long may still face in Fulton County will have no material effect on a man who must already spend the rest of his life in prison even if he is not executed.
The Fulton County case is one of the first times prosecutors have deployed the Georgia hate crime law, which was approved last year by lawmakers in response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was fatally shot after he was pursued by three white men who suspected him of committing burglaries in their neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Ga.
The willingness of Ms. Willis to seek the death penalty comes after her declaration as a candidate for the prosecutor’s job in 2020 that she could not “foresee” a case in which she would seek capital punishment.
The Fulton County indictment against Mr. Long includes 19 total counts, including charges of aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.
Sean Keenan contributed reporting.
Source: The New York Times