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NYC Subway Shooter Pleads Guilty to 10 Federal Terrorism Charges, One Gun Charge

Frank Robert James.  (Image via the NYPD.)

Frank Robert James (via the NYPD).

The 63-year-old man in Manhattan who admitted to perpetrating a mass shooting inside of a New York City subway car in April that left dozens of commuters injured has pleaded guilty to a spate of federal terrorism charges.

Frank Robert James on Tuesday formally pleaded guilty to a superseding indictment charging him with 10 counts of terrorism and other violence against a mass transportation system carrying passengers and employees, federal authorities announced.

The 10 terrorism charges reflect the number of victims who sustained gunshot wounds during the shooting. James is also charged with one count of discharging a firearm during a crime of violence.

“As described in court filings, the defendant set off a smoke bomb in a New York City subway car and then fired a handgun more than 30 times, striking ten innocent passengers,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a Justice Department press release Tuesday. “Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that the Justice Department will work relentlessly to hold accountable those who engage in mass violence and terrorize our communities.”

The investigation into James was conducted by the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which consists of FBI agents and detectives from the New York Police Department.

“Today’s guilty plea is a distinct admission of the terror Mr. James inflicted on New Yorkers last April in Brooklyn, and he is being held accountable for his reprehensible actions that morning,” stated NYPD Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell in a press release Tuesday. “Our nation’s largest transit system is the lifeblood of New York City. And its subway riders expect and deserve the brisk, coordinated, and meticulous work exhibited by everyone involved in bringing this terrible incident to a successful close.”

James was the man who opened fire on an N-train car in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn during rush hour at approximately 8:26 a.m. on April 12.

James set off two smoke grenades on the second car of the Manhattan-bound subway train while it was heading from the 59th Street station to the 36th Street station, all within the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Law&Crime previously reported. He then fired a 9mm semi-automatic handgun 33 times, hitting 10 people.

In addition to the gunshot victims, 13 people were injured from smoke inhalation, falling down, or panic, Chief of Detectives James Essig told reporters at the time. No one died in the attack. James fled immediately after the mass shooting but was easily traceable based on evidence left at the scene, police said..

“Searches of the scene of the attack revealed two bags, both of which were recovered from the scene,” FBI agent Jorge Alvarez wrote in a 10-page affidavit released back in April. “The first bag contained, among other items, a firearm, a plastic container containing gasoline, a torch, a U-Haul key, and multiple bank cards. The firearm was a Glock 17 pistol manufactured in Austria.”

Federal authorities wrote that records provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed that the firearm was “lawfully purchased in Ohio” by an individual named “Frank Robert James.”

Any of the first 10 terrorism charges could put James away for life. While prosecutors had previously contemplated a scenario that could allow for James’ eventual release from prison, they’ve already signaled that they plan to recommend a sentence that would effectively incarcerate the 63-year-old for the rest of his life.

In a 10-page letter filed on Friday, prosecutors explained what the plea would mean for the calculation of James’s sentencing guidelines.

If James “clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility” during his hearing on Tuesday, the government estimates that the sentencing guidelines call for a sentence between 382 to 447 months’ imprisonment — roughly 31 and 37 years behind bars, according to the letter.

That sentencing exposure rises sharply if James does not come clean.

“If the defendant does not clearly demonstrate acceptance of responsibility, the government currently estimates that the guidelines will advise the imposition of a sentence within a total range of 480 months’ to life imprisonment, assuming that the defendant falls within Criminal History Category I,” the letter states. Federal sentencing guidelines were enacted to encourage fairness and uniformity in punishing similar crimes.

Through calculations based on several categories, the guidelines determine an approximate sentence for a defendant based on their particular conduct. One of those categories is whether the defendants accept responsibility for their actions. Those calculations, however, are not binding on prosecutors, the probation department or the sentencing judge, and the government already announced its intention to seek an above-guidelines sentence for James.

“In addition, as the government has informed defense counsel, based on the facts and circumstances known to the government at this time, including that the defendant planned his attack for years and fired more than thirty rounds on a crowded subway car endangering the lives of dozens of people, the government intends to seek an above-Guidelines sentence at the time of the defendant’s sentencing,” their letter states.

Read the full letter here.

Adam Klasfeld contributed to this report.

[images via NYPD]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.