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Holocaust museum shooting was planned, prosecutor says

James von Brunn was on a suicide mission and had plotted for months before he killed a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, prosecutor says. The suspect asks the judge for a 'speedy trial.'

September 03, 2009|Del Quentin Wilber | Wilber writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The 89-year-old white supremacist accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June had planned the attack for months and was on a suicide mission, a federal prosecutor said in court Wednesday.

The disclosure came during a brief hearing in Washington federal court during which the suspect, James von Brunn, spoke publicly for the first time since the June 10 shooting.

"The Constitution guarantees me a speedy and fair trial," Von Brunn said in a halting voice. Wearing a blue jail uniform, he appeared frail and sat quietly in a wheelchair.

Von Brunn is charged with first-degree murder, hate crimes and gun violations. He is accused of killing security guard Stephen T. Johns, 39, after Johns held open the door for him. Other guards returned fire, wounding Von Brunn in the head.

During the hearing, prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton to detain Von Brunn pending trial. Walton granted the request.

For the first time, prosecutors also explained what they believe to be Von Brunn's motive. A longtime white supremacist, he wanted to "send a message to the Jewish community" that the Holocaust is a hoax, Assistant U.S. Atty. Nicole Waid said. "He wanted to be a martyr for his cause," she said.

According to e-mails and Von Brunn's writings, Waid said, investigators determined that the attack had been in the works for months. "This was a premeditated and planned plot," she said.

Waid declined to elaborate on the e-mails or to whom they were sent. Ben Friedman, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, declined to say whether anyone else knew about the plot. No one else has been charged in the shooting.

During the hearing, Waid said Von Brunn was on a suicide mission and did not think he would "come out alive." Before the attack, she said, Von Brunn completed his funeral plans and got his finances in order for relatives.

Waid said Von Brunn has no family or friends who would care for him if he was released. "This defendant has nothing to lose," she said. "If given a chance, there is no doubt he would try to kill again."

Waid noted that Von Brunn was sentenced to prison for trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board in 1981.

Waid said the June crime was extensively recorded, with security video showing Von Brunn leaving his car, a rifle at his side, and shooting Johns. It also shows other guards returning fire and wounding Von Brunn, and authorities removing the rifle from his hands, Waid said.

Von Brunn displayed emotion only a few times Wednesday. Once, he shook his head when his attorney, A.J. Kramer, asked the judge to order a mental competency exam.

As Kramer was explaining his request, Von Brunn exclaimed, "Your honor!"

Kramer bent down to whisper in his client's left ear. "He does not agree with this course of action," Kramer told Walton. "He is adamant that he wants a fair and speedy trial."

Von Brunn then spoke: "I'm a United States citizen, and as a U.S. naval officer I swore to protect my country. I take my vows very seriously."

Walton ordered that Von Brunn undergo a mental competency exam and deferred an arraignment until tests are completed.

He scheduled a hearing for Oct. 14.

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