The man who opened fire on a crowded Brooklyn subway train last year in a rush-hour attack that shocked New York City, injuring 10 passengers, pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal terrorism charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Frank James, 63, who posted online that he was a “prophet of doom,” pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to pulling the trigger on a Manhattan-bound train traveling between stations on April 12, 2022, an attack that prosecutors said was “Intended to maximum damage at the height of rush hour.”
James, dressed in a beige prison jumpsuit and reading a prepared statement, said he only intended to cause serious bodily harm, not death, but knew his actions could have been fatal.
Dressed as a maintenance worker, James fired a 9mm pistol at least 33 times after firing smoke grenades, injuring the victims, aged between 16 and 60, in the legs, back, buttocks and hands as the train pulled into the station. Sunset Park. He then fled in the haze and confusion, setting off a 30-hour city-wide manhunt that ended when he called the police himself.
In his arraignment, James pleaded guilty to all 11 counts, including 10 counts of the terrorist attack on the mass transit system — one for each of the injured passengers. The terrorism charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The second charge, discharging a firearm during a violent crime, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors are seeking to put him in prison for decades. His lawyers, arguing his actions were aggravated assault and not attempted murder, said he should serve no more than 18 years. James has no plea agreement.
He previously vowed to fight the charges and refused to leave his jail cell to appear for an earlier hearing, prompting Judge William F. Kuntz II to issue an order directing U.S. marshals to use “all force necessary” to ensure James appears. for Tuesday’s court hearing.
Several victims took part in the process, but none wanted to talk to journalists. James expressed no remorse but said he plans to do so when he is sentenced, possibly in the summer.
“Mr. James has taken responsibility for his crimes since he turned himself in to law enforcement,” James’ attorneys Mia Eisner-Greenberg and Amanda David said in a statement. “A just sentence in this case will carefully balance the harm he suffered against his age, health and notoriously inadequate medical care by the Bureau of Prisons.”
Had the case gone to trial, prosecutors said the evidence would have disproved James’ claim that he only intended to injure, not kill. James had been planning the attack for at least four years and staged the trial a few months before, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Winnick said.
Before shooting, James fired smoke grenades to send passengers fleeing to one side of the subway car, making it easier for him to shoot them, Winnick said. The trajectory of his shots indicated he was aiming for “center mass” for maximum lethality, she said.
The attack upended the ritual of the morning commute, “threatening the lives of countless New Yorkers who rely on the safety of the subway system every day,” Vinick said.
Before the shooting, James, who is black, posted dozens of videos online in which he talked about race, violence and his struggles with mental illness, sometimes going by the name “Prophet of the Law.”
He condemned the treatment of black people and spoke of being so frustrated: “I should have picked up a gun and started shooting.” One video shows him on a crowded New York subway car, raising his finger to point at passengers one by one.
James, who has been incarcerated at a federal prison in Brooklyn since his arrest, told Kuntz that a prison psychologist visits him once a month “to talk to me and see how I’m doing.”
James’ attorneys informed the judge on Dec. 21 that he wants to plead guilty, a departure from his previous promise to fight the charges in court.
In a prison interview with The Associated Press in August, James talked about his lifelong struggle with mental health and the notoriety he gained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he befriended disgraced R&B star R. Kelly.
“It’s going to be a long thing,” James said. “People don’t have enough information yet to judge me… Overall, I’m a good person at heart. I have never hurt anyone. “
James was arrested in Manhattan a day after the shooting after calling police to say where he was. Police were already searching the area after a high school photography student with a sharp eye called about a man believed to be the suspect sitting on a bench with a handbag.
Prosecutors said an array of evidence linked James to the attack. His bank card, mobile phone and the key to the rental van were found at the scene of the shooting. Officers also found the handgun used in the shooting; tracking records show James bought the gun from a licensed gun dealer in Ohio in 2011.
In court documents, prosecutors said James had the means to carry out more attacks, noting that he had ammunition and other gun-related items in a Philadelphia storage facility. The New York native lived in Milwaukee and Philadelphia before the shooting.
Associated Press reporters Jim Mustian and Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.