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'Cold, calculated, planned': US man could face death penalty after murdering two black people

Kenneth James Gleason, from Louisiana, killed two black men last week.

Kenneth James Gleason is escorted by police to a waiting police car in Baton Rouge.
Kenneth James Gleason is escorted by police to a waiting police car in Baton Rouge.
Image: Gerald Herbert via AP

POLICE IN THE southern US state of Louisiana have charged a 23-year-old man with killing two people in a murder spree that may have been racially motivated.

Authorities in Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, said Kenneth James Gleason, who is white, killed two black men last week, whom he picked out at random in “cold, calculated, planned” murders.

“This is a potential death penalty case,” said prosecutor Hillar Moore during a news conference.

Authorities said he would be charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of a homeless man and a dishwasher who was walking to work.

In each case, the killer opened fire from his car, then walked up to the victim as he lay on the ground and fired again repeatedly, police said.

“I feel confident that this killer would have killed again,” interim police chief Jonny Dunnam said.

Gleason’s attorney, J Christopher Alexander, said his client “vehemently denies guilt, and we look forward to complete vindication”.

Death penalty

Authorities found a Hitler speech in Gleason’s home during a search over the weekend, according to the law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on.

Asked whether police suspect the shootings were motivated by race, Sargent L’Jean McKneely said: “We’re not completely closed off to that. We’re looking at all possibilities at this time, so we’re not going to just pinpoint that.”

Hillar Moore said he may seek the death penalty.

“It appears to be cold, calculated, planned [against] people who were unarmed and defenceless,” he said.

Series of attacks 

Authorities also said that just after midnight on 10 September, Gleason fired into the home of a black family who lived three houses down from Gleason and his parents.

Resident Tonya Stephens said her two adult sons were home at the time and she was away at her nurse’s job. Three bullets pierced the front door and struck furniture, but no one was hurt.

Stephens said her family had seen Gleason sleeping in his car or speeding down the street, but she never had any dealings with him and “I never paid him any mind”.

In the other shootings, neither victim had any connection to Gleason, investigators said.

The first killing happened on 12 September, when 59-year-old Bruce Cofield, who was homeless, was gunned down.

The second took place last Thursday night when 49-year-old Donald Smart was shot on his way to his job at a cafe popular with Louisiana State University students.

Authorities said ballistics tests determined the same gun was used in all three shootings. Also, they said DNA found on one of the shell casings matched genetic material on a swab they took from Gleason.

Investigators have not found the 9mm gun but said Gleason bought such a weapon last November. He also ordered a silencer in July, but it had not arrived yet.

‘Bloodshed’

Louisiana’s capital city is in the grips of a surge in bloodshed. The number of homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish has already surpassed last year’s total of 62, The Advocate newspaper reported this month.

“Baton Rouge has been through a lot of turmoil in the last year,” the police chief said. If not for Gleason’s arrest, “he could have potentially created a tear in the fabric that holds this community together”.

Racial tensions escalated in the city in the summer of 2016 when a black man was shot to death by a white police officer outside a convenience store. About two weeks later, a black gunman targeted police in an ambush, killing three officers and wounding three before he was shot to death.

Gleason was arrested in Phoenix in December on charges of shoplifting wine and razors. Police said he was homeless at the time. The case was dismissed after he completed a diversion program.

During the search of Gleason’s home, authorities also found 9 grams of marijuana and vials of human growth hormone, according to police.

With reporting by AFP. 

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