NEW YORK (AP) — A man who sprayed a New York City subway car with bullets during rush hour, wounding 10 people and sparking a citywide manhunt, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison.
Frank James, 64, pleaded guilty earlier this year to terrorism charges in the April 12, 2022, mass shooting aboard a Manhattan-bound train. He received a life sentence on 10 counts and 10 years for an 11th count.
Prosecutors had asked for the life sentence, saying James spent years carefully planning the shooting in order to “inflict maximum damage.”
James’ attorneys had asked for a reduced sentence of 18 years, saying he didn’t intend to kill anyone and suffered from serious mental illness.
Prior to the sentencing, three people who were present at the time of the attack addressed the court.
Fatim Gjeloshi, 21, who escaped the shooting unharmed, approached the microphone to begin recounting the morning of the shooting and said he forgave James, but then he stopped and broke down in tears. “I can’t do this,” he said, and walked out of the courtroom.
Also given an opportunity to speak, James offered a critique of the nation’s mental health system and social safety net, saying the system had failed him and others battling mental illness and poverty.
Disguised as a construction worker on the day of the attack, James waited until the train was between stations, denying his targets a chance to flee. Then he ignited multiple smoke bombs and unleashed a barrage of bullets from a 9 mm handgun at panicked riders in the crowded train car.
The attack, carried out as the train pulled into a station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, wounded victims ranging in age from 16 to 60.
As emergency responders tended to the victims, James walked calmly out of the subway station and vanished. Authorities searched for him for more than a day. They identified James as a suspect relatively quickly, using a key to a rented moving van left behind on the bloodied subway car. He was eventually arrested in Manhattan’s East Village after calling a police tip line to turn himself in.
“The fact that no one was killed by the defendant’s 32 gunshots can only be described as luck as opposed to the defendant’s intentional choice,” Brooklyn prosecutors wrote in a memo to U.S. District Judge William Kuntz.
The attack stunned New Yorkers, heightened anxiety about safety in the transit system and prompted local officials to add additional surveillance cameras and police to the trains.
Before the shooting, James, who is Black, posted dozens of videos online under the moniker “Prophet of Doom,” ranting about race, violence, his struggles with mental illness and a host of unnamed forces he claimed were out to get him.
In one 2019 video, James alluded to a pending conflict in his hometown, stating that “it’s going to be very interesting what happens in New York with me.” By that time, prosecutors allege, James was already in the process of planning the subway shooting.
When James pleaded guilty to the terrorism charges earlier this year, he said he only intended to cause serious bodily injury, not death.
His attorney, Mia Eisner-Grynberg, suggested that while James may have initially planned to kill people, he changed his mind in the heat of the moment.
“In a society where, sadly, we learn nearly every day that mass shooters who intend to kill readily achieve their goals, it is far more likely that Mr. James lacked that specific intent than that he simply failed in his mission,” Eisner-Grynberg wrote in a sentencing memo.
Referencing the defendant’s abusive childhood in the Bronx and his ongoing struggles with both alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia, she added, “Mr. James is not evil. He is very, very ill.”
Prosecutors, however, said the trajectory of the bullets showed that James aimed at the “center mass” of riders for maximum lethality. They said James only stopped firing his semi-automatic Glock pistol because the gun jammed.
James has been held without bail for the past 17 months at the Metropolitan Detention Center.