The shooter who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 could face the death penalty, a federal jury announced Thursday, setting the stage for further evidence and testimony about whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.
The government is seeking the death penalty for Robert Bowers, who rioted against Jews online before storming the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons in the nation’s deadliest anti-Semitic attack. The jury agreed with prosecutors that Bowers, who had planned the attack for six months and has since expressed regret that he did not kill more people, formed the necessary legal intent to kill.
Bowers’ lawyers argued that his ability to form intent was impaired by mental illness and a delusional belief that he could stop the genocide of white people by killing Jews.
The testimony is now expected to move on to the impact of Bowers’ crimes on survivors and loved ones of the victims.
Bowers, 50, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, killed members of three congregations who had gathered at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. He also wounded two worshipers and five policemen.
Bowers was convicted last month on 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of free worship resulting in death. His lawyers offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors refused, opting instead to take the case to court and seek the death penalty. Most of the families of the victims supported this decision.
If the jury decides that Bowers deserves to die, it will be the first federal death sentence handed down during Joe Biden’s presidency. Biden has pledged to abolish the death penalty, but federal prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in some cases.
The punishment phase in Bowers’ trial began on June 26. The jury heard technical testimony for several weeks about Bowers’ psychological and neurological condition, with mental health experts on both sides disagreeing as to whether he suffered from schizophrenia, delusions, or a brain disorder that played a role in the rampage. .
Bowers constantly ranted on social media about his hatred of Jews prior to the 2018 attack and told police at the scene that “all these Jews must die.” He told psychologists who examined him afterwards, including most recently in May, that he was pleased with the attack.
The sentencing is now moving into a more emotional phase, with jurors expected to hear about the pain and trauma Bowers inflicted on believers in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
The prosecution will also present evidence of other aggravating circumstances, including that the victims were elderly and that Bowers’ rampage was motivated by religious hatred, while the defense will present mitigating factors that could persuade jurors to spare his life. The arguments of the defense may include the statements of his relatives.
To sentence him to death, the jury would have to unanimously agree that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating ones.
In Wednesday’s closing arguments, attorneys for the prosecution and defense took turns criticizing the findings of other expert witnesses, doctors who testified about Bowers’ mental state and whether he might have formed the intent to commit the attack.
Prosecutor Soo Song said Bowers carefully planned the attack for months.
“On October 27, 2018, this defendant violated the safe holy sanctuary that was the Tree of Life Synagogue,” she said. “He turned it into a killing ground.”
But Bowers’ defense attorney, Michael Burt, cited expert witnesses to support the claim that “a delusional belief system had taken over his thinking,” leaving him unable to do anything but “follow the dictates” of those delusional thoughts. .
Burt argued that Bowers’ ability to form intention was impaired by schizophrenia, epilepsy, and the delusional belief that he could stop the genocide of white people by killing Jews helping immigrants.
Even years after the attack, which is facing capital murder charges, Bowers still “can’t contain his illusions that he has about invading a country, that he’s a soldier in a war,” Burt said.
Song condemned the idea that Bowers had no control over his actions. She noted that Bowers told one of the defense’s own expert medical witnesses that he carefully planned the attack, considered other potential Jewish targets, and “regrets that he didn’t kill dozens more.” Song said that Bowers described himself as calm and focused when shooting to kill.
And US Attorney Eric Olshan added that Bowers was not delusional, he “just believes in disgusting things.”
The Tree of Life community in Squirrel Hill held a ceremony in April to take a moment to reflect and reflect on future renovations and the upcoming lawsuit, CBS Pittsburgh reports. The site will soon become a complex that commemorates those killed and educates people about anti-Semitism.
In 2022, anti-Semitic incidents nationwide rose 36%, with the Anti-Defamation League counting 3,697 incidents of assault, harassment or vandalism, the highest since the group began its annual review in 1979.
If you or someone you know is experiencing the effects of a mental health test, go to 1027healingpartnership.org for help resources.