New Zealand mosque shootings: Brenton Tarrant pleads guilty to Christchurch terror killings

Australian pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder in a surprise change of mind

Brenton Harrison Tarrant appears in a screen via video link in Christchurch
Brenton Tarrant appears in a screen via video link from his prison cell Credit: (TVNZ Pool via AP)

The white supremacist who slaughtered 51 people in a shooting rampage at two New Zealand mosques last year unexpectedly pleaded guilty to all charges on Thursday, meaning there will be no trial in his case. 

Brenton Tarrant, 29, showed no emotion as he appeared via video link from an Auckland prison cell, where he pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism.

He had previously pleaded not guilty and his trial was due to start in June. No reason was given for his decision to plead guilty and his lawyers could not be reached for comment. He faces life in prison but a judge could decide to allow him to apply for parole at an earlier date in light of his guilty plea. 

His decision was met with mixed emotions but mainly relief by New Zealand’s Muslim community, which just two weeks ago marked the one-year anniversary of the March 15, 2019 attacks in the city of Christchurch. 

"I feel conflicted,” said Aya al-Umari, whose brother Hussein was killed in the attack on the al-Noor mosque. 

She said that she had wanted to find out more details about what happened during the massacre at the trial but she was also relieved about not having to face the trauma of sitting through it.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's Prime Minister, comforting victims last year. She pushed through a ban on semi-automatic weapons after the shootings Credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Many New Zealanders feared that Tarrant, an Australian, might use the trial as a platform for his white supremacist views. He documented them in a 74-page manifesto published online shortly before the attacks. 

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who killed 69 people in the 2011 Utøya massacre, used his own trial in Oslo to defend his actions and recite his ideology. In 2017, court guards looked on as he gave a Hitler salute to television cameras. 

Tarrant’s change in plea came at a hastily-arranged hearing when courts are largely in lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak. Only a handful of people were allowed inside the courtroom, including the imams from the two mosques that were attacked.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, said it was "deeply disappointing" that more victims did not get a chance to attend the hearing. She said there was “a certain sense of relief that the whole nation, but particularly our Muslim community, are being spared from a trial that could have otherwise acted as a platform”. 

Judge Cameron Mander has not yet set a date for the sentencing hearing but it is expected to be at a date when coronavirus restrictions are lifted and more of the victims and their families are able to attend. 

No one in New Zealand’s history has ever been convicted of so many murders. He is also the first person to be convicted on the charge of terrorism, a charge that New Zealand only introduced in legislation after the September 11 terror attacks.  

Tarrant moved to New Zealand in 2017 and kept a low profile in the university city of Dunedin. He frequented a gym, practiced shooting at a rifle club range and built up an arsenal of weapons. He didn't appear to be employed, and said in some online posts that he had inherited a significant amount of money when his father died.

Tarrant was one of a rash of white supremacist gunmen to carry out massacres in recent years. Just five months after the Christchurch killings, a 21-year-old American man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and killed 22 people. 

US prosecutors said he appears to have targeted Latinos in his rampage. The gunman posted a manifesto online in which he referenced the Christchurch massacre as a source of inspiration.