EL PASO, Texas - More than two months after the horrific massacre at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso, accused gunman Patrick Crusius entered a "not guilty" plea during his arraignment in court, with his lawyers vowing afterward to save him from possible execution.
Until Thursday afternoon, there had been no sight of the 21-year-old defendant since he was arrested near the Walmart store where 22 people were killed on Aug. 3. Some two-dozen people were also injured in the attack and hospital officials said two of them still remained hospitalized.
Crusius's arraignment took place in the 409th State District Court before Judge Sam Medrano, who was reassigned the case. Judge Angie Juarez Barill, who was originally assigned the case, bowed out saying she knew one victim's family members.
The court proceeding only lasted a few minutes, with Crusius appearing clean cut and dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and glasses, as he quietly answered questions from the judge about whether he understood the charges against him. (You can watch the entire arraignment in the video player below.)
About 80 people crammed into the courtroom on the top floor of the El Paso County Courthouse to witness Crusius' appearance. A handful wiped away tears as Crusius stated his plea, but otherwise remained quiet as bailiffs had warned against public outbursts during the proceeding.
Crusius, of the Dallas suburb of Allen, has been indicted on capital murder of multiple persons charges and prosecutors are seeking to have him sentenced to execution if convicted.
The suspect's family in Allen issued a brief statement to the media following Crusius' plea to the indictment.
"Our family is aware of today's arraignment in Patrick's case and his plea of not guilty," the statement read. "Again, we continue to pray for the victims and everyone involved, including all those now tasked with their roles in the process of our judicial system."
Outside the courtroom after the arraignment, defense lawyers Mark Stevens and Joe Spencer said they were "morally opposed to the death penalty" and proclaimed they would do whatever it takes to spare Crusius from an execution.
Spencer said El Paso needs to heal following the mass shooting tragedy, "and the quickest way to get closure and healing is not through seeking the death penalty."
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, however, disagreed strongly with Spencer's assessment.
"Our community will not be able to fully heal until justice is served, and he pays for the hate he brought into our city," Margo said. "There is overwhelming evidence proving his guilt. I want him prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Stevens indicated the case would go to trial as long as prosecutors insisted on capital punishment. He also hinted at seeking a change of venue in the case, saying "people have already made up their minds about what happened."
"There are two sides to this story," Stevens added, noting that he intended to contrast those sides in court at trial. "Keep an open mind," he told reporters, adding that it was "essential" to tell Crusius' story. (You can watch the entire remarks by the defense lawyers in the video player below.)
Crusius remains held without bond in the El Paso County Detention Facility on a suicide watch. The judge's had ordered that Crusius be transported from the jail to court to appear in person at his brief arraignment.
Carrying a legally purchased 7.62-caliber firearm, authorities contend Crusius drove 11 hours from Allen to El Paso to carry out the mass shooting. He fled the scene in his car but turned himself in less than an hour later, according to police. His arrest warrant said he declared: "I'm the shooter."
His motive is outlined in statements he purportedly gave to police after his arrest. Court documents indicated he admitted to targeting Hispanics in his shooting rampage because of his concerns about an invasion of Mexicans into Texas.
Among the crowd in the courtroom Thursday was a delegation from the Mexican Consulate as eight Mexican citizens from Cuidad Juarez were among those killed in the attack.
In a court filing just before Thursday's arraignment, prosecutors said they had shared evidence with the defense that includes police and FBI interviews with Crusius, data from his cellphone, records from the Dallas-area schools he attended and tens of hours of footage captured by Walmart security cameras around the time of the shooting.
Prosecutors did not comment following the court appearance.
(The AP contributed to this report.)