Christchurch mosque attack: Terrorist Brenton Tarrant to spend the rest of his life in prison, without possibility of parole

Warning: This article discusses the Christchurch mosque attack.

Terrorist gunman Brenton Harrison Tarrant has accepted his fate and will spend all his remaining years in prison, with no chance of ever being released.

He had his chance to defend himself on the fourth day of his sentencing hearing in the High Court at Christchurch on Thursday. He declined.

The acceptance cleared the way for Justice Cameron Mander to impose New Zealand's first sentence of life without parole on the 29-year-old Australian.

On Monday, the court had heard a detailed summary of facts then 90 victim impact statements related to the charges Tarrant had admitted – 51 murders, 40 attempted murders, and a charge of committing a terrorist act.

Tarrant opened fire at Christchurch's Al Noor Mosque on March 15, 2019, before driving to Linwood Mosque where he opened fire again.

The attack sparked an outpouring of support for the Muslim community in New Zealand and around the world.

At sentencing on Thursday, the Crown called for the life without parole sentence, but amicus curiae Kerry Cook - appointed by the court to ensure a defence argument was presented - urged that a life sentence with a long non-parole term could be imposed, under which Tarrant could eventually be released if he posed no danger.

He said this could be considered because of Tarrant's guilty pleas, which had saved the victims and families the trauma of reliving the events at a trial. There had been some "recalibration" of Tarrant's views since he published his "manifesto" on the day of the attacks.

There was a faint hope of rehabilitation and Tarrant had said he would be willing to meet victims "in a restorative justice process".

Justice Mander began his sentencing remarks by saying he knew this was a time of stress and emotion.

"I remind everyone that this is a court of law and it is important that my sentencing remarks be delivered in silence.

"Those in the public gallery have conducted themselves in a respectful and dignified way throughout, for which I am grateful. I request that this continues."

He said Tarrant's extremist views and motivation were clear when he made his attack. He then described the attack and named those shot at the Friday morning prayer services at the Al Noor mosque in Deans Avenue and at the Linwood mosque. 

Tarrant was caught when police rammed his car off the road.

Brenton Tarrant.
Brenton Tarrant. Photo credit: Pool

"You were anxious not to be shot and offered no resistance," Justice Mander told Tarrant.

Justice Mander said he had "listened with sadness" to those who had read their victim impact statements in court during the four-day sentencing hearing. He summarised their views and situations, and referred to kind, forgiving, fine people being killed. 

He said he had little doubt Tarrant had come to New Zealand to target the Muslim community. He had travelled in Europe and developed deep-seated views about the "cultural displacement" of Europeans by migrants. 

He had come to New Zealand from Australia in 2017 and lived an isolated lifestyle, but he had no apparent mental disorders or psychiatric conditions. He had held racist beliefs since his late teens.

He had told a report writer that he had disavowed the ideological views that had led him to commit these terrible crimes. At the time, he was in a poisoned emotional state, and terribly unhappy, he said. 

Tarrant's claimed change of his extremist views was seen as questionable. There was no sign of genuine remorse.

Justice Cameron Mander.
Justice Cameron Mander. Photo credit: Pool/Stuff via Getty

"You remain empty of any empathy for the victims. You remain detached and appear entirely self-centred," Justice Mander said.

He said Tarrant presented a grave risk to public safety, having targeted people because of their religion, ethnicity, race and colour. The victims and their families were part of New Zealand's multi-cultural society. 

He imposed the life without parole term for carrying out what he called a "cowardly massacre" of people who had no chance to protect themselves, with pitiless cruelty that included the murder of a three-year-old boy clinging to the leg of his father. 

Tarrant had shown contempt for the sanctity of life, but the public response was to stand with the people of community he had targeted, and to repudiate his hateful agenda.

He rejected the idea of any credit for Tarrant's guilty pleas, and his claimed change of views. He noted Tarrant remained entirely self-absorbed and had offered no apology or public acknowledgement.

His regret seemed centred on the waste of his own life. 

Tarrant sat impassively through the sentencing

Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh said the enormity of the offending was without comparison in New Zealand's criminal history, and called for life without parole.

"This case is undoubtedly one envisaged by Parliament when it enacted the life without parole legislation in 2010, aimed at the worst murderers," he said

"He was motivated by an entrenched racist and xenophobic attitude and a desire to create terror in the Muslim community and around the country.

"He meticulously planned and prepared the attacks with the aim of executing as many people as possible."

He had attacked people while they were innocently worshipping in their mosques, and had caused devastating loss of life and injury. 

"He has caused permanent and immeasurable suffering and harm to the victim families, the Muslim community and the rest of New Zealand. In my submission, he is clearly New Zealand's worst murderer," Zarifeh said.

The court was required to impose a maximum term in the most serious cases, unless circumstances relating to the offender made that inappropriate.

"There can be no doubt in this case," said Zarifeh. 

The killings showed sadism and depravity by the offender. In his police interview he had expressed disappointment that he had not killed more people. 

The victims were vulnerable, many shot from behind and while they were praying. The shootings included what could only be called the "execution" of a three-year-old child. 

He pointed to the extreme violence, brutality, cruelty, and callousness of the gunman's actions. 

A deterrent sentence was required not only because of the racism, religious intolerance, and terrorism involved, but because many victims had expressed real fear about similar attacks in the future. 

Pre-sentence reports about Tarrant showed "cognitive distortions" about his motivations. He accepted that nothing good came from his offending, and his political and social views "weren't real".

He said he felt ostracised by society and wanted to damage society as an act of revenge. He accepted his offending was terrorism, but said he did not target victims because of their ethnicity. He targeted a religion but claimed he had no issue with Islam.

A psychological report said he might one day return to his previous views and "plan another laudable end to his life".

Tarrant had said he did not want help. He said professionals did not have the expertise or training to deal with his issues. If necessary, he could psychoanalyse himself. 

He had expressed remorse, but the psychiatrist said "the true depth of it was difficult to gauge".

Zarifeh said Tarrant's guilty pleas were put in, in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt.

"His acceptance of responsibility from the time of his arrest can be attributed to the pride he took in his offending rather than any true expression of remorse."