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Pittsburgh Synagogue Gunman Found Eligible for Death Penalty

by Ryan Lee
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synagogue attack

A federal jury announced on Thursday that the gunman responsible for the deaths of 11 individuals at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 is eligible for the death penalty. This decision sets the stage for further examination of evidence and testimony to determine whether he should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

Robert Bowers, who expressed his hatred for Jewish people online, went on a violent rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue, armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, resulting in the deadliest antisemitic attack in the nation’s history. The jury agreed with prosecutors that Bowers, who spent months planning the attack and has since expressed remorse for not causing more harm, possessed the necessary intent to commit murder under the law.

Bowers’ legal team argued that his mental illness impaired his ability to form intent and that he held delusional beliefs, including the idea that killing Jews who assisted immigrants would prevent a white genocide.

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before reaching their verdict. Bowers displayed minimal reaction throughout the trial, and the survivors and victims’ relatives in the courtroom gallery complied with the judge’s request to contain their emotions.

The next phase of the trial will focus on the impact of Bowers’ crimes on the survivors and the loved ones of the victims. Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a program aiding those affected by the rampage, expressed the importance of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Jeffrey Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, stated that his organization does not take a stance on the death penalty, and survivors and victims’ relatives hold differing views on its application. Finkelstein dismissed the defense’s claim that Bowers’ actions were a result of mental illness, emphasizing that the act was driven by antisemitism rather than psychological factors.

Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from suburban Baldwin, targeted three congregations gathered at the Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people and injuring two worshipers and five police officers on October 27, 2018. Last month, Bowers was convicted on 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. Although his attorneys offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, prosecutors chose to pursue the death penalty by taking the case to trial. Most of the victims’ families supported this decision.

If the jurors decide that Bowers deserves the death penalty, it would mark the first federal death sentence during President Joe Biden’s term. Despite Biden’s campaign promise to end capital punishment, federal prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in certain cases.

The penalty phase of Bowers’ trial commenced on June 26, with weeks of expert testimony focusing on his mental and neurological conditions. Mental health professionals from both sides disagreed on whether Bowers suffered from schizophrenia, delusions, or brain disorders that played a role in the attack.

Prior to the 2018 assault, Bowers frequently expressed his hatred for Jewish people on social media and told police at the scene that “all these Jews need to die.” Even during psychological evaluations conducted as recently as May, Bowers expressed satisfaction with the attack.

The sentencing phase will now concentrate on the emotional aspects, allowing jurors to hear about the pain and trauma inflicted by Bowers on the worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

The prosecution will present evidence of aggravating factors, including Bowers’ religious hatred as a motivation for the rampage, while the defense will present mitigating factors to potentially sway the jurors towards a life sentence. The defense may also present pleas from Bowers’ relatives.

To sentence him to death, the jurors must unanimously agree that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones.

During the final arguments, prosecution and defense attorneys challenged the findings of each other’s expert witnesses, who testified about Bowers’ mental state and his ability to form intent. Prosecutor Soo Song highlighted Bowers’ meticulous planning over several months, turning the Tree of Life synagogue into a killing ground on October 27, 2018.

Bowers’ defense lawyer, Michael Burt, cited expert witnesses to support the claim that a delusional belief system had taken over Bowers’ thinking, rendering him incapable of anything other than following those delusions.

Burt argued that Bowers’ ability to form intent was also impaired by schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Song rejected the notion that Bowers lacked control over his actions, pointing out that Bowers himself told one of the defense’s medical expert witnesses that he meticulously planned the attack, contemplated targeting other Jewish locations, and expressed regret for not killing more people. Song emphasized that Bowers described himself as calm and focused during the shooting spree.

U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan contended that Bowers was not delusional but held “repugnant” beliefs.


This report includes contributions from Big Big News reporter Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania.


Support for Big Big News’ religion coverage is provided through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for the content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about synagogue attack

Q: What was the outcome of the trial for the gunman who attacked the Pittsburgh synagogue?

A: The federal jury found the gunman eligible for the death penalty. The jury’s decision sets the stage for further proceedings to determine whether he should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

Q: What were the charges against the gunman?

A: The gunman faced 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. The charges stemmed from his deadly attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue.

Q: Did the gunman express remorse for his actions?

A: The gunman has since expressed regret that he didn’t kill more people during the attack. Despite his remorseful statements, the jury agreed with prosecutors that he had formed the necessary intent to commit murder.

Q: Was mental illness a factor in the gunman’s defense?

A: The gunman’s lawyers argued that his ability to form intent was impaired by mental illness and delusional beliefs. They claimed he believed he was stopping a supposed genocide of white people by targeting Jews who assisted immigrants.

Q: Will the death penalty be pursued in this case?

A: Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the gunman. However, the final decision lies with the jury, who will weigh aggravating factors presented by the prosecution against mitigating factors presented by the defense.

Q: How long did the jury deliberate before reaching a verdict?

A: The jury reached their verdict after less than two hours of deliberation. The swift decision indicates a relatively unanimous determination regarding the gunman’s eligibility for the death penalty.

Q: What will the next phase of the trial focus on?

A: The next phase of the trial will shift to the impact of the gunman’s crimes on the survivors and the loved ones of the victims. The prosecution will present evidence of aggravating factors, while the defense will present mitigating factors to influence the jury’s sentencing decision.

Q: What is the stance of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on the death penalty?

A: The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh does not take an official position on the death penalty. Survivors and victims’ relatives have varying opinions on whether the death penalty should be applied in this case. The federation emphasized that the attack was an act of antisemitism, not a result of mental illness.

Q: Is the gunman’s case the first federal death penalty case under President Joe Biden?

A: If the jurors decide to impose the death penalty, it would be the first federal death sentence during President Joe Biden’s term. Despite his campaign promise to end capital punishment, federal prosecutors continue to pursue the death penalty in select cases.

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