Judge: Hanukkah attack suspect may need death-penalty lawyer

Grafton Thomas is led from Ramapo Town Hall in Ramapo, N.Y. following his arraignment Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. Thomas was charged in the stabbings of multiple people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi's home in Monsey, an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. (Seth Harrison/The Journal News via AP)

A man charged in a bloody attack at a Hanukkah celebration may need attorneys specializing in death penalty cases if a stabbing victim dies, a judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel raised the subject during a court hearing for Grafton Thomas after he pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges.

Thomas was arrested hours after five people were stabbed at an attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Krouse said that if any of the victims dies, prosecutors will consult with Justice Department officials in Washington before deciding whether to seek the death penalty. One victim remains in a coma.

Seibel said she would appoint lawyers specializing in death penalty cases to help with the defense “as soon as possible,” if it becomes likely that charges could be upgraded to include a death penalty request.

Michael Sussman, an attorney who represents Thomas, said he’ll consider asking the judge by Jan. 27 to conclude his client is psychologically unfit for trial. He said a defense expert will visit Thomas a third and final time Friday and then prepare a report.

Krouse said prosecutors would like to have Thomas evaluated by a psychology professional of their own choosing if Sussman wants to prove Thomas is unable to understand the charges against him.

Authorities say Thomas had kept handwritten journals with anti-Semitic references and had used his phone to look up information on Hitler.

Krouse said journals and writings were seized from two residences. He said two machetes and two knives were found in separate vehicles in the probe.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he directed up to $340,000 to install license plate readers on roads in and around Monsey. Police arrested Thomas within two hours of the attack, and authorities have credited a license plate reader with helping catch him.

Cuomo, who also announced $340,000 to put in license plate readers for the village of New Square, praised the technology and said painful lessons have been learned from the Monsey attack.

“We will do everything in our power, on every level, to make sure this horrific act doesn’t happen again,” Cuomo, accompanied by community leaders, said at a news conference in Rockland County.

Cuomo plans to update the New York State Police’s network of license plate readers.

The upgrades, he said, will reduce the time it takes authorities to locate missing people, crime suspects and people who have a warrant seeking their arrest.

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