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Pittsburgh synagogue shooter sentenced to death

  • Oliver Morrison/WESA
  • Julia Zenkevich/WESA
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Thursday, July 13, 2023, the day a federal jury announced they had found Robert Bowers, who in 2018 killed 11 people at the synagogue, eligible for the death penalty.

 Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Thursday, July 13, 2023, the day a federal jury announced they had found Robert Bowers, who in 2018 killed 11 people at the synagogue, eligible for the death penalty.

The man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshipers and wounding six other people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 has been sentenced to death. The attack is the deadliest antisemitic assault in U.S. history.

Robert Bowers, 50, of Baldwin, was found guilty on 63 federal counts in June, including 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. Of those, 22 counts carried the possibility of the death penalty.

At 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, jurors announced that they had voted unanimously that Bowers should be sentenced to death for each of the death-eligible counts he faced.

Jurors also said they unanimously determined that aggravating factors presented by prosecutors during the penalty phase of Bowers’ trial outweighed mitigating factors presented by his attorneys in an attempt by his attorneys to persuade the jury to spare his life.

The same jury found Bowers eligible for the death penalty last month.

The victims killed by Bowers included Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, brothers Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal, husband and wife Sylvan and Bernice Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.

Reading the sentencing document

They belonged to three congregations that worshiped at the Tree of Life synagogue: Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers thanked the jurors for their service in a written statement. “In the years we have spent waiting for this trial to take place, many of us have been stuck in neutral,” he said. “It was a challenge to move forward with the looming specter of a murder trial. Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence, it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward.

Jurors deliberated for nearly three hours Tuesday morning and an additional seven hours on Monday. They entered the courtroom to deliver the results of their deliberations around 11:45 a.m.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville instructed people in the courtroom to show no reaction when the verdict was read. He also ordered Bowers to stand and turn to the jury.

“The task laid before the jury was an enormous task,” he said. ”They seemingly embraced it with earnestness and seriousness.”

There was little reaction in the courtroom as Colville announced the death sentence. But several victims who survived the attack, including Andrea Wedner and Carol Black, wept and carried tissue with them as they left the courtroom. Timothy Matson, a Pittsburgh police officer who suffered 25 surgeries after being shot during the attack, hugged someone in the hallway just after leaving the court. Dan Leger, who was severely injured in the attack and testified that he thought he was going to die, was reading a book of music before he entered the courtroom. His face bore its typical serious expression as he exited.

Robert Bowers did not make a noticeable response when the verdict was read, but a few minutes later he briefly took off his glasses and talked to a lawyer next to him. He turned toward his aunt, who had come to hear the verdict, and nodded at her before U.S. Marshals hurried him from the room.

Only five of the jury members voted that Bowers’ mother loved him, in their deliberations, and she was not present for the decision. None of the 12 jurors agreed that Bowers had acted as a model defendant during the proceedings.

Jury selection began three months ago and the trial, which started on May 30, lasted just over two months. Surviving worshipers, rabbis and religious leaders and Pittsburgh police testified throughout the trial. They described the harrowing event; many recalled hiding from Bowers, who police identified in their testimony as the shooter. Others said they believed they were going to die.

The family of one of two of the victims, Rose Mallinger and her daughter Andrea Wender, released a statement thanking the Pittsburgh community for supporting them during the trial. “Although we will never attain closure from the loss of our beloved Rose Mallinger, we now feel a measure of justice has been served. This sentence is a testament to our justice system and a message to all that this type of heinous act will not be tolerated,” the statement said.

Mitigating factors weighed

The jury did find that a number of mitigating factors suggested Bowers deserved leniency. Bowers’ defense lawyers argued that he suffered a particularly traumatic childhood that included multiple admissions to a psychiatric hospital and multiple attempts to take his own life. His lawyers said he suffered from schizophrenia, which limited his ability to tell right from wrong.

Jurors largely agreed that Bowers had suffered a traumatic childhood but ultimately disagreed with the schizophrenia diagnosis, and that Bowers’ ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions was impaired.

But they ultimately decided that the aggravating factors in the case weighed more heavily on them. Those factors included the large number of victims, the uniqueness of each victim, the fact that Bowers killed Jewish people in a synagogue because of their religion, and that many of the victims were particularly vulnerable. The jury found a total of nine aggravating factors, and most of them applied to all 22 death penalty counts, totaling nearly 200 aggravating counts.

Colville will sentence Bowers Thursday morning in a proceeding scheduled to start at 9 a.m. He must sentence Bowers to the death penalty, as recommended by the jury.

During the sentencing hearing, family members and others will have a chance to speak to the judge and will not be limited in what they can say — as they had been during other phases of the trial. They can, for example, say they believe Bowers does or doesn’t deserve the death penalty, although such statements will not have an impact on the sentence that Colville is required to impose.

Colville also must sentence Bowers on the 41 charges that don’t carry the death penalty. Jurors do not decide the penalty for non-capital charges.

Execution date

It’s far from clear when or even if Bowers will ultimately be executed. The appeals process in death penalty cases often takes years if not decades. The Biden administration currently has a moratorium on executions as the justice department investigates its procedures around the federal death penalty.

Though the decision to pursue the death penalty in this case was made under the prior administration, Biden administration Attorney General Merrick Garland allowed prosecutors to continue seeking the sentence.

Seven of the nine families affected by the attack wrote to Garland in 2021 to voice their support in seeking the death penalty. The congregation Dor Hadash wrote to Garland that they preferred to spare Bowers the death penalty in part because one of the victims, Jerry Rabinowitz, was opposed to the death penalty. New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who escaped the shooting without physical injuries, also wrote to Garland requesting that Bowers be given life in prison. Some of the victims, including Tree of Life Rabbi and shooting survivor Jeffrey Myers did not come out publicly one way or the other.

The federal government executed 13 people under former President Donald Trump, more than three times the number of people executed by the federal government in the previous six decades, including several additional executions after Trump lost his reelection bid.

At 50, Bowers is older than most inmates when they first enter death row. Bowers smoked cigarettes for most of his life and used drugs such as heroin at times. But except for some evidence of brain abnormalities, Bowers didn’t report any major health conditions during his trial.

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