PITTSBURGH (AP) — A truck driver who expressed hatred of Jews was found guilty on Friday of storming into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and shooting dead everyone he could find. Eleven parishioners were killed in an anti-Semitic act of terrorism for which he could be sentenced to death.
The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, according to Robert Bowers’ attorneys admitted early in the trial that he had attacked and killed worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. The jury must now decide whether the 50-year-old should be sent to death row or sentenced to life in prison without parole as the federal trial enters a sentencing phase that is expected to last several weeks.
Bowers was convicted on all 63 charges he faced, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of religious freedom resulting in death. His lawyers had offered an admission of guilt in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors declined, opting instead to take the case to court and seek the death penalty. Most of the victims’ families supported the decision.
The jury deliberated for about five hours over two days before reaching a verdict.
Bowers turned a sacred place of worship into a “hunting ground,” targeting his victims based on their religion. a prosecutor told the jury on Thursday. As prosecutor Mary Hahn read the names of each of the 11 victims he killed, she urged the jury to “hold this defendant accountable … and hold him accountable for those who cannot testify.”
Bowers, armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, also shot and wounded seven, including five responding police officers.
Prosecutors presented evidence of his deep-rooted hostility toward Jews and immigrants. During the 11 days of testimony, the jury learned that Bowers had done it posted in detail, shared or liked anti-Semitic and white supremacist content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right, and praised Hitler and the Holocaust. Bowers told police that “all these Jews must die,” Hahn said.
Survivors testified about it The horror they felt that day, including a woman who recounted how she was shot in the arm and then realized her 97-year-old mother had been shot right next to her. Andrea Wedner, the last witness at the trial, told the jury about it touched her mother’s lifeless body and yelled “Mommy” before SWAT officers took her to safety.
After Bowers is found guilty, survivors and families of the deceased victims are expected to tell the jury the devastating effects of his crimes. The penalty phase is scheduled to begin a week after the verdict is announced.
Bowers’ attorneys did not defend themselves in the guilty plea, signaling that they will focus their efforts on saving his life. They plan to present evidence that Bowers suffers from schizophrenia, epilepsy and brain impairments. Defense attorney Judy Clarke had also tried to question Bowers’ motive, suggesting to the jury that his killing spree was not motivated by religious hatred but by his delusional belief that Jews were committing genocide by killing refugees at the settlement in the United States helped.
The three congregations that shared the synagogue building – Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life – have spoken out against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry since the attack. So is the Tree of Life church work on a plan the rehabilitation of the synagogue building – which still stands but has been closed since the shooting – by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center to combat anti-Semitism.
The trial came three years after President Joe Biden declared during his 2020 campaign that he would work to abolish the death penalty federally and in states that still use it. His Attorney General, Merrick Garland, has temporarily stayed executions to review policies and procedures. But federal prosecutors continue to work diligently to uphold previous death sentences and, in some cases, such as the Bowers case, to enforce the death penalty in court for permissible crimes.
Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam of Northeast Pennsylvania contributed to this report.