LOS ANGELES — The man charged in a deadly shooting rampage at Los Angeles International Airport will face the death penalty for intentionally targeting federal employees and terrorizing passengers and airport workers, federal prosecutors said Friday.
Prosecutors have not called the killing of a transportation security officer and wounding of three other people an act of terrorism, but their six-page filing in U.S. District Court said Paul Ciancia intended to terrorize federal workers to keep them from protecting airports and he succeeded in terrifying passengers.
"Ciancia acted with the intent that his crimes would strike fear in the hearts of Transportation Security Administration employees," Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald wrote. "By committing his crimes on a weekday morning in a crowded terminal at one of the busiest airports in the world ... Ciancia terrorized numerous airline passengers and airport employees by causing them to fear for their lives and experience extreme emotional distress."
Ciancia, 24, has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges in the killing of Gerardo Hernandez, 39, and the wounding of three other people at LAX on Nov. 1, 2013. The New Jersey native is due in court Monday, and lawyers are expected to discuss a trial date.
Phone and email messages left for Ciancia's lawyer were not immediately returned.
The shooting caused chaos and panic as passengers ran for cover and security screeners fled their posts amid a hail of bullets. The airport was crippled most of the day and flights across the country were interrupted.
Although officers quickly shot Ciancia and arrested him, it took hours to search the rest of the airport and determine there were no accomplices.
The decision to seek the death penalty, which had to be approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, was based on several factors, according to the filing:
— Ciancia engaged in violence that he knew could be deadly and he intended to kill Hernandez.
— The killing was premeditated, he intended to kill multiple people, and it occurred during another crime: violence at an international airport.
— The killing harmed the family, friends and colleagues of Hernandez and frightened passengers and airport workers.
Ciancia, an unemployed motorcycle mechanic, walked into the terminal, drew a semi-automatic rifle from a duffel bag and repeatedly shot Hernandez point-blank at an initial checkpoint, according to court papers. As he headed up to a passenger screening area, he turned back to see Hernandez move and returned to shoot him again, authorities said.
At the baggage screening checkpoint, two other uniformed TSA employees and an airline passenger were shot and wounded. A handwritten letter in Ciancia's duffel bag was directed at the TSA, saying he wanted to "instill fear in your traitorous minds" and kill multiple officers, the FBI said.
The shooting exposed security lapses throughout the airport and led to changes in how emergency workers respond to such incidents after Hernandez lay on the floor without medical attention for 33 minutes.
It's relatively rare for U.S. prosecutors to seek the death penalty and there have only been three executions of federal convicts since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
There are currently 61 federal inmates on death row, but no one has been executed since 2003.
In many cases, the government drops the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea and a sentence of life in prison without parole, he said. That's what happened in the cases of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph and Jared Loughner, who killed six and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in an Arizona shooting rampage.
A judge wants the case to be tried this year, but lawyers have said it could take longer to prepare if it is a death penalty case.