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City of Atlanta police officers outside of Gold Spa, on March 16, 2021.

CHRISTOPHER ALUKA BERRY/Reuters

A man accused of killing eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage businesses was indicted Tuesday on murder charges by two separate grand juries, and one prosecutor filed notice that she’ll also seek hate crime charges and the death penalty.

A Fulton County grand jury indicted Robert Aaron Long, 22, in the March 16 slayings of Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63. A separate grand jury in Cherokee County indicted Long for a separate shooting there that resulted in the killings of Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis also filed notice that she intends to seek a hate crime sentence enhancement and the death penalty against Long, who is white. The hate crime charges are based on the actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender of the four women killed, the notice says.

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The charges and the decisions to seek the death penalty and a sentencing enhancement under the hate crime law “send a message that everyone within this community is valued,” Willis said during a news conference Tuesday.

“Today we have taken another step forward in seeking justice for the victims of this crime and for their family members,” Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said in a news release.

Wallace said she will make a decision on whether to seek the death penalty before Long’s arraignment, which has not yet been scheduled.

Georgia’s new 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’s motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

The 19-count Fulton County indictment includes charges of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.

The domestic terrorism charge says Long committed a series of illegal acts “which were interrelated by distinguishing characteristics, with the intent to cause serious bodily harm and to kill individuals and groups of individuals, and with the intent to intimidate the civilian population of this state and of its political subdivisions.”

Four aggravated assault charges have to do with the shootings of the four victims who died. For a fifth, the indictment says Long pointed a gun at another woman, causing her “reasonable apprehension of immediately receiving a violent injury.”

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The charges in the 23-count Cherokee County indictment are related to the shooting at a spa near suburban Woodstock in which four were killed and one person was wounded. Six other people were inside the spa when the shooting happened, Wallace said. The Cherokee County charges include malice murder, felony murder, attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault.

Willis’ decision to seek the death penalty is a departure from her stance during her campaign to be district attorney last year.

During a 2020 candidate forum, Willis answered yes when asked: “Will you commit to refuse to seek the death penalty?”

“Last year I told the voters of Fulton County that I could not imagine a circumstance where I would seek [the death penalty],” Willis said during the news conference. “Unfortunately, a case has arisen ... that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty and we shall seek it.”

The killings are eligible for the death penalty because each was committed while Long was in the act of committing another capital offence, namely the killings of the victims, Willis’ notice of intent says. Each killing was also “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind” and was committed during an act of domestic terrorism, the notice says.

Police have said Long shot and killed four people, three of them women and two of Asian descent, at Youngs Asian Massage near Woodstock just before 5 p.m. on March 16. He also shot and wounded a fifth person, investigators said.

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He then drove about 50 kilometres south to Atlanta, where he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa before going across the the street to Aromatherapy Spa and fatally shooting another woman, police have said. All of the Atlanta victims were women of Asian descent.

After the shootings at the two Atlanta spas, Long got back into his car and headed south on the interstate, police said.

Long’s parents called authorities to help after recognizing their son in still images from security video that the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office posted on social media. They provided cellphone information that allowed authorities to track their son to rural Crisp County, about 225 kilometres south of Atlanta.

State troopers and sheriff’s deputies spotted his SUV on Interstate 75, and one of them forced Long to spin to a stop by bumping his vehicle. Long then surrendered to authorities.

In an initial interview with investigators, Long claimed to have a “sex addiction,” and authorities said he apparently lashed out at businesses he viewed as a temptation. But those statements spurred outrage and widespread skepticism given the races of the victims.

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