Christchurch mosque attack: Brenton Tarrant pleads guilty to all charges

The man who committed the March 15 Christchurch mosque attacks has changed his plea and now admits all charges.

Fifty-one people were killed and 49 injured at two central Christchurch mosques last March when Australian gunman Brenton Tarrant opened fire during Friday prayer. 

Tarrant faced 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act.  

While he pleaded not guilty to all charges last year, on Thursday, the defendant appeared in the Christchurch High Court via audio-visual link and changed his plea to guilty on all charges. He was convicted and remanded in custody until May 1. 

As the names of his victims were read out, the man, wearing a grey sweatshirt, showed little emotion.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush acknowledged the guilty pleas and said the news may have come as a surprise to some victims and the public.

The hearing came together after Tarrant indicated to his lawyers on Tuesday afternoon that he wanted to appear before the court. However, due to the strict nature of the current COVID-19 lockdown protocols, Justice Cameron Mander limited the number of people who could be in the public gallery.

In the courtroom were 17 people, including the imams of Al Noor and Linwood Avenue mosques, members of the media, police and a victims’ advisor. Justice Mander acknowledged it was regrettable that victims and families couldn't attend, but ruled that news of the conviction couldn't be published by media for an hour after the hearing ended to allow time for families to be told.

While Tarrant has been remanded in custody until May 1, sentencing will not take place until it is possible for all victims to be present in court.

"While the sentencing hearing is still pending, today’s guilty pleas are a significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days. I want to acknowledge the victims, their families and the community of Christchurch – the many lives that were changed forever.  They have inspired all of us to be a kind and more tolerant community," Bush said.

He also acknowledged the police team and staff from the Christchurch Crown Solicitor's Office for their work on what he called New Zealand's largest-ever criminal prosecution.

Victim Support said the guilty pleas would be "welcome news" for the victims, their families and all Kiwis. Chief executive Kevin Tso said support would continue for those that need it. 

"We're pleased victims no longer have to face the trauma of the trial," he said.

"They have our utmost respect and promise that we will be here for them for as long as they need us."

Previous pleas

When Tarrant pleaded not guilty to all 92 charges in June last year there were emotional scenes in court. Around 140 family members of those injured and killed were in attendance at the time, filling three court rooms. 

"We are showing the people we are strong, we are innocent people, but we are strong," said one man.

The faces of those directly affected by the shootings spread around the globe with the intense media interest that followed the tragedy. Farid Ahmed, who lost his wife and told Newshub that he had forgiven the shooter in the days after the attack, met with US President Donald Trump last year. 

"Thank you for your leadership, standing up for humanity, standing up for religious groups and their rights, and thank you for supporting us in the March 15 tragedy in Christchurch. God bless you, and God bless the United States," Ahmed said to Trump.

Prior to the anniversary of the shootings, Ahmed told Newshub he still prays for his wife every day and he continues to keep his words full of love in the same way that stole the nation's heart. He's also written a book in her honour. 

"Kiwis did not buy the hate, they took the path of love and peace and their immediate reaction was a model of peace and lesson for the rest of the world," he said. 

A national remembrance service was scheduled to take place on the one-year anniversary of March 15, however, this was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry is underway into the performance of state agencies and what could have been done to prevent the attack.