Hanukkah slashing suspect pleads not guilty to new federal hate crime charges

The man accused of stabbing and slashing party-goers with a machete at a Hanukkah celebration in New York pleaded not guilty to five federal hate crime charges Monday.

Grafton Thomas was arraigned in White Plains, New York, on new charges alleging he targeted the individuals because of their religion.

Thomas, 37, allegedly stormed a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in Monsey on December 28 and attacked the people there with an 18-inch machete, injuring at least five, prosecutors said.

Investigators found handwritten journal entries in Thomas’ home that expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, according to federal prosecutors. They said they also found evidence of a search for temples on a cell phone found in his car.

Thomas previously was charged with five counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill, which also is a hate crime. He has not entered a plea in that case.

Each of the 10 counts carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.

Thomas was brought into the courtroom Monday without handcuffs, wearing an orange Department of Corrections T-shirt and orange pants. Family members were present, and he looked at them as they waved to him, before sitting down next to his attorney Michael Sussman.

The arraignment was presided over by Judge Paul E. Davison, but the criminal case has been assigned to Judge Cathy Seibel.

Thomas also faces state charges of attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Competency hearing set for March

His family and attorney have said Thomas has a “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations.”

In a second court appearance on Monday, attorneys for the government and for Thomas discussed the possibility of whether he is competent to stand trial. Seibel set a competency hearing for March 25.

Sussman said he was awaiting a medical evaluation to determine whether he would file a competency motion.

Seibel requested that if he were to make such a motion, he must do so by January 27. The government would then have until February 10 to respond.

Sussman said during a post-court press conference that if he filed a competency motion, citing a doctor’s evaluation, the government could review that evaluation and choose to accept it, or have another doctor perform a second evaluation.

Sussman said he didn’t have an opinion on whether his client is competent to stand trial, but that his conversations with his client gave him enough doubts to seek an evaluation. If the competency motion goes forward, the matter would be heard on March 25.

The judge asked the defense to notify the court should he decide not to file a competency motion, at which point the parties would re-evaluate the timeline.

Attorneys for the government also discussed discovery and noted that they are working several search warrants in relation to the case. The search warrants include four email accounts, three vehicles, two residences, cellular information, and various devices seized from the vehicles and residences.

Government attorneys also stated they would be reviewing physical evidence including but not limited to: journals and writing seized in two residences, machete packaging, two machetes, two knives, surveillance video in Monsey and Manhattan, and audio of 911 calls. They are also awaiting lab reports and extraction reports from seized devices.

While no one has died from the stabbings so far, Seibel advised Sussman that if a death should occur, his client would have a right to additional counsel, or counsel that could replace him, should the charges be upgraded and if the death penalty becomes possible.

Attorneys for the government said in court they don’t have a sense yet whether all victims will survive.