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Sisters of 2 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims say most of the bereaved favor a death sentence

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
The Rosenthal family lost brothers Cecil and David in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

 Courtesy of The Rosenthal Family

The Rosenthal family lost brothers Cecil and David in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

With the capital trial in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting case soon approaching, some surviving family members of those who died reiterated their support for prosecution efforts to obtain a death sentence. Diane and Michele Rosenthal lost their brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, in the 2018 attack.

In an online briefing with reporters Friday, the sisters sought to correct news reports that, the sisters said, indicate that most surviving family members would prefer that the man charged in the shooting receive a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

“To set the record straight, back in July of 2021, seven of the nine families who lost loved ones wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, reflecting our support in seeking the death penalty in this particular tragedy,” Diane Rosenthal said.

She said her family and six others still hold the same position. They had expressed as much in a letter-to-editor to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle last fall. On Friday, they shared their letter to Garland with reporters.

During Friday’s call, Michele Rosenthal said, “the suggestions published or reported that family members be relieved of the stress of a trial, or that a cost-benefit analysis dictates a plea, are offensive to our family.”

The Rosenthals’ remarks lasted for barely five minutes Friday. It marked a rare instance in which bereaved family members chose to speak publicly about the shooting.

Some congregants who once worshiped at the still-shuttered Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, by contrast, have at times spoken with media outlets about their opposition to a capital trial for the charged gunman, Robert Bowers. In 2019 and 2021, they wrote letters to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, urging prosecutors to drop their capital case against the defendant.

Before the shooting, three congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha — gathered at Tree of Life.

Members who oppose a capital prosecution for the defendant said the death penalty violates their religious beliefs. They also fear that the trial will force them to endure months of retraumatization. The proceeding, which is scheduled to begin on April 24, is expected to last for three months.

On Friday, the Rosenthal sisters noted that congregants who favor a life sentence in lieu of a trial did not all lose immediate family members in the shooting.

They said they believe the death penalty represents just punishment and would serve as a deterrent to other would-be hate-fueled attacks.

Bowers has been charged on more than 60 federal counts, including hate crimes, obstructing the free exercise of religion resulting in death, and firearms-related offenses. Twenty-two of those counts are eligible for a maximum punishment of death.

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