GEORGIA (NYTIMES) - The man accused of killing eight people at a string of Atlanta-area spas pleaded guilty on Tuesday (July 27) to four counts of murder in suburban Cherokee county and will face four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole plus 35 years in prison.
But the man, Robert Aaron Long, still faces four other murder charges in nearby Fulton county, where the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.
Long arrived in court through a side entrance just after 9.15am in a white dress shirt. He was clean shaven and wore glasses, with his hair shaved at the sides and long at the top.
He stood before the judge and quietly answered, "Yes, ma'am," when a prosecutor asked him if he understood the terms of the plea agreement.
The March 16 shooting spree set off a nationwide wave of concern over racially motivated attacks on Asian people at a time of broader anxiety and anger over racism in the United States. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
Fani Willis, the Fulton county district attorney, has indicated in court filings that she also intends to seek enhanced penalties against Long, who is white, for committing crimes because of the "actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender" of the victims.
Long, who law enforcement officials say has admitted he was the gunman, had not made a court appearance since he was arrested a few hours after the shootings at three spas. He was identified that evening by a state trooper while driving in an SUV on Interstate 75, about 240km south of Atlanta.
Law enforcement officials later said that Long had told them he was on his way to Florida to carry out another attack on a business tied to the pornography industry.
The police have also said that Long told them that he had a sexual addiction, and that the shootings were an effort to eliminate such temptations from his life.
Officials and acquaintances have said that Long, who was raised in a strict evangelical Christian environment, frequented massage parlours and had previously sought out Christian counselling in an effort to rein in his impulses.
Prosecutors say the shooting rampage began at Young's Asian Massage, a strip-mall business in Cherokee county, north-west of Atlanta. One person was injured there and four were killed: Tan Xiaojie, 49; Feng Daoyou, 44; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33.
The gunman then drove to the heart of Atlanta, in Fulton county, where he fatally shot four women of South Korean descent at two other spas: Park Soon Chung, 74; Kim Suncha, 69; Yue Yong Ae, 63; and Grant Hyun Jung, 51.
In May, Long was indicted by a Cherokee county grand jury on 23 counts, including multiple counts of aggravated assault.
In Fulton County, he faces 19 counts for crimes including domestic terrorism.
Tuesday's arraignment marked the beginning of what could be a protracted legal drama even though many of the basic facts of the slayings do not appear to be in dispute.
With the death penalty looming as a possibility in Fulton county, Long and his lawyers may choose to go to trial, perhaps mounting an insanity defence.
With Covid-related backlogs and other delays, a Fulton county trial might not start until 2024, an official in Willis' office said.
Willis, a Democrat, is a seasoned prosecutor who became district attorney in January. Like many big-city American prosecutors, she is being forced to confront a recent uptick in violent crime. Her office has also launched an inquiry into former President Donald Trump's attempts to overturn Georgia's election results.
As a candidate for office, Willis said she could not foresee a case in which she would seek the death penalty. But she decided to do so in this case, she has said, after reviewing the evidence and meeting the families of the victims.
In a court document, she described the shooting spree as "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind".
In a brief telephone interview last week, Willis said that while she tended to keep an "open mind" concerning plea bargains, she was, for now, continuing to handle Long's case as a capital one.