A police officer stands guard in front of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019, where one of the two mass shootings occurred. New Zealand's stricken residents reached out to Muslims in their neighborhoods and around the cou
A police officer stands guard in front of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019, where one of the two mass shootings occurred.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - More than a year after 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were gunned down, the man accused of carrying out the massacre has unexpectedly pleaded guilty to the crime.

Brenton Tarrant pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge of terrorism Thursday during a hearing Thursday at the Christchurch High Court.  Tarrant entered his plea via video link from his prison cell in Auckland instead of in person, as New Zealand begins a four-week nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The imams from the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, the targets of Tarrant’s rampage, were among the handful of people in the courtroom for the surprise hearing.

Hours before carrying out the March 15, 2019, shootings -- the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history -- the now 29-year-old Australian white supremacist published a long manifesto online explaining his reasonings for the attack.  Tarrant livestreamed the attack on Facebook, which was viewed by scores of people around the world before it was taken down.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tarrant’s decision to change his plea would relieve the survivors of the burden of having to endure a trial.

Tarrant’s next court appearance is scheduled for May.