Jury poised to deliberate death penalty or life sentence for gunman in Pittsburgh synagogue massacre

31 July 2023

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A jury is set to deliberate whether to impose the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without parole on a truck driver who spewed antisemitic hate before fatally shooting 11 worshippers at a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

The same jurors who convicted 50-year-old Robert Bowers in June on 63 criminal counts listened to closing arguments Monday in the penalty phase of his federal trial, held nearly five years after the truck driver from suburban Baldwin perpetrated the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Bowers defiled a place of worship when he entered the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, shooting everyone he could find in a mass murder clearly motivated by religious hatred, said U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan.

Bowers raved incessantly on social media about his hatred of Jewish people, using a slur for Jewish people some 400 times on a social media platform favored by the far right, the prosecutor reminded jurors.

“Do not be numb to it. Remember what it means. This defendant targeted people solely because of the faith that they chose,” Olshan said.

He added: “This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law: the death penalty.”

The defense was expected to deliver its closing argument later Monday.

Bowers’ attorneys have argued that he has schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder whose symptoms include delusions and hallucinations, and that Bowers attacked the synagogue out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to bring about a genocide of white people by coming to the aid of refugees and immigrants.

In order to impose death, jurors must find that aggravating circumstances, which make the crime especially heinous, outweigh mitigating factors that could be seen as diminishing his culpability. Those aggravating circumstances could include the vulnerability of Bowers’ elderly and disabled victims and his targeting of Jewish people.

Olshan, who began his presentation Monday by playing a composite of 911 calls made from inside the synagogue, said Bowers had taken “11 people, 11 full lives, 11 people who loved their families, 11 people who loved their friends, 11 people who were loved. … How do you measure the impact of all of that loss?”

The prosecutor spoke about 75-year-old Joyce Fienberg’s care for her family and 65-year-old Richard Gottfried’s devotion to his faith. He said Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, had the ethos of a country doctor: “He loved delivering babies but he never delivered judgment.” David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59, intellectually disabled brothers, “loved life,” Olshan said. “But maybe more than anything, they loved Tree of Life.”

The other deceased victims were Rose Mallinger, 97; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.

The attack also wounded seven people, including five responding police officers. Bowers was shot three times before surrendering when he ran out of ammunition.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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