When police dramatically apprehended Brenton Harrison Tarrant last Friday after he allegedly shot dozens of Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, authorities filed only one charge against him: a single count of murder.
The idea was to keep him behind bars on a holding charge to provide time for authorities to gather evidence and build a case against him. And those preparing that case now have a complicated task ahead of them: choosing what other charges they may press against him.
John Ip, a senior lecturer at University of Auckland’s law school, told The Washington Post that prosecutors probably will choose between terrorism charges and murder charges but not pursue both. Between the two, he said, murder charges are a far more likely choice — in large part because if Tarrant is found guilty, murder charges could prevent him from asking for parole anytime soon.
In New Zealand, the standard minimum non-parole period for a life sentence is longer when someone is charged with murder, Ip said.
“If the shooter is convicted of murder for the number of counts we’re talking about, this [sentence] is for the rest of his natural life,” Ip said.
Although New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swiftly labeled the attack terrorism, authorities may want to avoid charging Tarrant under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act, in part because it would require deep analysis of the motive behind the mosque shootings. Tarrant already published a 74-page manifesto on social media describing his motivation, in which he called Muslim immigrants “invaders” and lamented immigration to Europe. A copy of the manifesto was delivered to Ardern’s office the morning of the attack. Tarrant plans to represent himself in court.
Ardern has vowed to refuse to speak Tarrant’s name to deny him notoriety — further proof that New Zealand’s government is eager to not offer him a platform for the views he outlined in his manifesto.
Murder is not particularly common in New Zealand, with more people killed in the mosque attacks last week than are usually killed in an entire year. But murder charges are much more familiar to experienced prosecutors in New Zealand than terrorism charges would be, and that could make for an easier case for them to win.
The number of killings involved and the terrorist nature of the crime “would obviously put you in unprecedented territory” in New Zealand, Ip said.
“There’s a question of whether you want to break new ground or just ensure that you win the case,” he added.
New Zealand does not have the death penalty, and the country has only one specialist maximum-security prison unit, inside Auckland Prison. Tarrant is being held outside Christchurch.
Greg Newbold, a New Zealand criminologist who previously served time in prison, told Agence France-Presse that Tarrant “is going to be very highly unpopular” in prison, where most of the inmates will be Pacific Islanders, he said. Newbold suggested that Tarrant probably would be held in solitary confinement, partly for his safety.