PITTSBURGH (AP) — The shooter who killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh is eligible for the death penalty in 2018, a federal jury announced Thursday, setting the stage for further evidence and testimony on whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.
The government wants the death penalty robert bowers, who raged against Jewish people online before storming the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons in the country’s deadliest anti-Semitic attack. The jury agreed with prosecutors that Bowers – who planned the attack for six months and has since expressed regret that he had not killed more people – had developed the requisite legal intent to kill.
Bowers’ attorneys argued that his ability to formulate intentions suffered from mental illness and a delusional belief that he could stop a genocide of whites by killing Jews.
The jury found, among other things, that Bowers intended to kill, that the attack was well planned and that he targeted vulnerable and elderly victims. When the verdict was announced, he showed little emotion.
Testimony is now expected to focus on the impact of Bowers’ crimes on survivors and victims’ families.
Bowers, 50, a truck driver from the suburb of Baldwin, killed members of three congregations gathered at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. He also injured two believers and five police officers.
Bowers was convicted on 63 counts last month, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of religious freedom resulting in death. His lawyers 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 this decision.
Should the jury decide that Bowers deserved death, it would be the first federal death sentence handed down during Joe Biden’s presidency. Biden campaigned to abolish the death penalty, but federal prosecutors continue to pursue the death penalty in some cases.
The punitive phase of Bowers’ trial began on June 26. The jury heard technical testimony about Bowers’ psychological and neurological condition for weeks Mental Health Experts for both sides Disagreed as to whether he suffers from schizophrenia, delusions, or brain disorders that played a role in the killing spree.
Bowers ranted incessantly on social media about his hatred of Jewish people before the 2018 attack and told local police that “all these Jews must die.” As late as May he told the psychologists who examined him afterwards that he was satisfied with the attack.
The sentencing now moves into a more emotional phase as the jury is expected to hear about the pain and trauma Bowers inflicted on believers at the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
Prosecutors will also present evidence on other aggravating factors – including that the victims were elderly and that Bowers’ killing spree was motivated by religious hatred – while the defense will present extenuating factors that could lead the jury to to spare his life. The defense case could include requests from his relatives.
To put him on death row, the jury must unanimously agree that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones.
In Wednesday’s final hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys took turns attacking the findings of each other’s experts – doctors who testified about Bowers’ mental state and whether he might have intentions to commit the attack.
Prosecutor Soo Song said Bowers meticulously planned the attack over a period of months.
“On October 27, 2018, this defendant violated the safe, sacred sanctuary that was the Tree of Life Synagogue,” she said. “He turned it into a killing ground.”
But Bowers’ defense attorney Michael Burt cited experts to support the claim that a “delusional belief system took over his thinking” that made it impossible for him to do anything but follow “the dictates” of those delusional thoughts.
Burt argued that Bowers’ ability to articulate intent was impaired by schizophrenia, epilepsy, and a delusional belief that he could stop white genocide by killing Jews who help immigrants.
Years after the attack, and facing murder charges, Bowers still can’t help “having these delusions that the country is being invaded, that he’s a soldier at war,” Burt said.
Song condemned the notion that Bowers had no control over his actions. She noted that Bowers told one of the defense medical experts that he carefully planned the attack, considered other potential Jewish targets, and “regrets that he did not kill dozens more.” Song said Bowers described himself as calm and focused as he was shooting for the death.
US Attorney Eric Olshan said Bowers was not delusional, but that he “just believes things that are repulsive”.
Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam of Northeast Pennsylvania contributed to this report.
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