An Australian white supremacist charged with killing 51 worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand last year changed his plea to guilty on Thursday, a move that will accelerate a case that had been progressing gradually and quietly under court-imposed gag orders.
After initially denying that he played a role, Brenton Tarrant, 29, pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism for a killing spree at two mosques in the city of Christchurch on March 15 of last year.
The mass shooting, the deadliest act of violence in New Zealand history, led to the adoption of new domestic laws banning semiautomatic weapons and ignited a global effort to restrict racist and violent content on the internet. The killer had posted a hate-filled manifesto online and live-streamed the shootings on Facebook for several minutes.
Mr. Tarrant was scheduled to go on trial in June. His change in plea came as a surprise to survivors and relatives of the victims, who have been packing the courtroom in Christchurch for months, often in wheelchairs and with canes, in the hopes of seeing swift justice.
Mr. Tarrant’s lawyers had indicated only on Tuesday that their client wanted to be brought before the court. Police Commissioner Mike Bush said arrangements for the appearance had to be made quickly because New Zealand is entering a strict lockdown to combat the coronavirus.
The authorities, Mr. Bush said, “appreciate this news will come as a surprise to the victims and the public, some of whom may have wished to be present in the courtroom.”
Mr. Bush said the small group of observers on Thursday included the imams from the two mosques that were attacked. Those allowed inside the court were screened by security and court staff wearing protective masks.
Mr. Tarrant faces life imprisonment on the charges. A date for sentencing has not been set, but Mr. Bush said it would not take place until all of the victims’ families can attend if they choose.
“Due to the Covid-19 epidemic, that will not be possible for some time,” Mr. Bush said.
“While the sentencing hearing is still pending,” he said, “today’s guilty pleas are a significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days.”