Georgia spa gunman pleads not guilty in four of eight killings

Robert Aaron Long appeared in court in Atlanta, after already pleading guilty to killing four people in Cherokee County.

People gather at a memorial in honour of the eight victims of the March attack in Atlanta [File: Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press]

A man already sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to fatally shooting four people at a massage business outside Atlanta, Georgia has pleaded not guilty to shooting four others on the same day at two spas inside the city.

Robert Aaron Long, 22, pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism during an appearance in Fulton County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is seeking the death penalty, as well as a sentencing enhancement under Georgia’s new hate crimes law. Willis said last month that she believes race and gender played a role in Long’s motivation.

In March, eight people were killed in three massage parlours, six of whom were Asian women. Long has described himself as the shooter in those attacks.

In July, Long pleaded guilty in nearby Cherokee County to charges including four counts of murder. He received four sentences of life without parole plus an additional 35 years.

Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace had said that had that case gone to trial, she was prepared to seek the death penalty and would have argued Long was motivated by gender bias, but that investigators had found no evidence of racial bias motivating the killings.

Those killed in Cherokee County were: Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Paul Michels, 54 and Delaina Yaun, 33.

The Atlanta victims were Suncha Kim, 69, Soon Chung Park, 74, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

Georgia’s hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury must determine whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

Attacks on Asian Americans

The March attacks came as Asian Americans faced an uptick in hate crimes connected to the coronavirus pandemic. Advocates have demanded justice while warning against downplaying the role race played in the attack.

In a speech after the killings, US President Joe Biden linked the attacks to a larger wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the country.

Long has told investigators he was motivated by the shame he felt from sexual urges and not by racial bias.

In a court hearing in Cherokee County in July, Long described how he bought a firearm and a bottle of bourbon and planned to kill himself.

Instead, he shot five people at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. After that, he drove about 48 kilometres (30 miles) south to Atlanta, where he shot three women at Gold Spa and one woman across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, police have said.

He then drove south on the interstate, and authorities have said he intended to carry out similar attacks in Florida.

However, Long’s parents had called police after recognising their son in images from security video posted online by authorities in Cherokee County.

His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone, which allowed authorities to find him and take him into custody on a south Georgia interstate.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies