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 after several of his victims tearfully and angrily recounted their ongoing trauma.
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 of discharging a firearm during an act of violence.
Three of his victims spoke in court of the physical and emotional pain they continue to experience more than a year after the attack in a packed subway car. They described the panic and the splattered blood on the train, and how they used their own clothes as tourniquets to stanch the bleeding from victims’ wounds.
“I have not been able to make sense of it,” said a young man identified as B.K. At times his voice cracked as he spoke and his eyes turned glassy from tears.
Another victim, a 51-year-old man identified as L.C., told the court he had post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide.
L.C., who said he worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the time of the shooting, bought an e-bike to avoid riding trains. When he regained his confidence and returned to the subway, he relived the horror of the shooting upon seeing a man wearing a vest similar to the one James had worn.
“I immediately thought of you, Frank James,” the victim said, his voice booming with anger.
Another victim, who later identified himself as Fitim Gjeloshi, 21, began to share his own story with words of forgiveness — “I don’t blame him. He needs help.” — then began to sob.
“I can’t do this,” he said, walking out of court. He later returned to hear the judge sentence James.
During his own 15-minute address to the court, James expressed contrition for his actions but criticized the country’s mental health system, saying it had failed especially people of color like him.
But he said his was not a “sob story.”
“I alone am responsible and no one else for that attack,” he said. He added that his violence was not due to animus toward any race or sexual orientation.
Reading from a handwritten statement, he recalled reading a news article about a young Black man who died in a subway car after being put in a chokehold by another rider who later said he was concerned about his erratic behavior and saw him as a threat. He was referring to the case of Jordan Neely, a Michael Jackson impersonator who became homeless and by most accounts was suffering from mental illness.
“People keep criminalizing the people who need help,” he said, adding that Neely was one such person who “was screaming out for help.”
U.S. District Court Judge William Kuntz was unconvinced, telling James that what he did was “pure evil.”
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 citing his mental illness.
Disguised as a construction worker on the day of the shooting last year, 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.
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 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.
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, had suggested that while James may have initially planned to kill people, he changed his mind in the heat of the moment.
She referenced the defendant’s abusive childhood in the Bronx and his ongoing struggles with both alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia.
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.
This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Fitim Gjeloshi’s name.