Truck driver guilty of killing 11 at Pittsburgh synagogue in deadliest attack on Jews in US history

by Lucas Garcia
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Synagogue gunman

Truck Driver Found Guilty in Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack, the Deadliest Assault on Jews in US History

On Friday, a truck driver was convicted for his hateful act against the Jewish community, as he stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue and indiscriminately shot at innocent congregants, resulting in the tragic deaths of 11 people. The attack, motivated by antisemitic beliefs, has been regarded as an act of terror, and the perpetrator may face the death penalty.

The guilty verdict was expected, as Robert Bowers’ defense lawyers acknowledged from the beginning of the trial that he was responsible for the assault on the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, marking it as the most devastating attack on Jews in American history. The jury will now deliberate on whether the 50-year-old should receive a death sentence or life imprisonment without parole, as the trial enters a penalty phase projected to last several weeks.

Bowers was found guilty on all 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. His legal team had proposed a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, but the prosecutors rejected the offer, opting instead to proceed with the trial and pursue capital punishment. Most of the victims’ families expressed their support for this decision.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, a survivor of the attack, expressed his gratitude for reaching this point, stating in a written statement, “I am grateful to God for getting us to this day, and I am thankful for the law enforcement who ran into danger to rescue me, and the U.S. Attorney who stood up in court to defend my right to pray.”

After deliberating for approximately five hours over two days, the jury reached a unanimous guilty verdict. Bowers, dressed in a dark sweater and blue shirt, showed little reaction, as has been characteristic throughout the trial. Several survivors and relatives of the deceased victims were present in the courtroom, offering silent support. The pronouncement of “guilty” repeated dozens of times by the judge elicited a few stifled sobs from the gallery.

During the trial, a prosecutor described how Bowers had transformed a sacred place of worship into a “hunting ground,” specifically targeting victims because of their religious identity. Prosecutor Mary Hahn read out the names of each of the 11 victims, urging 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 wounded seven individuals, including five police officers who responded to the scene.

The prosecution presented compelling evidence showcasing Bowers’ deep-seated animosity towards Jews and immigrants. Over the course of 11 days, the jury learned that Bowers had extensively engaged with antisemitic and white supremacist content on Gab, a social media platform associated with the far right. He had also expressed admiration for Hitler and the Holocaust. When apprehended by the police, Bowers openly stated, “all these Jews need to die,” according to Hahn.

Survivors testified about the terror they experienced on that fateful day. One woman recounted being shot in the arm and realizing that her 97-year-old mother had been shot and killed beside her. The trial’s final witness, Andrea Wedner, shared her heart-wrenching experience, recounting how she touched her mother’s lifeless body and cried out, “Mommy,” before being led to safety by SWAT officers.

Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the Tree of Life Congregation, expressed hope that the verdict would provide survivors and victims’ family members with “some level of comfort and help to ease the pain, even if ever so slightly.”

Now that Bowers’ guilt has been established, survivors and family members of the deceased victims are expected to address the jury and describe the profound impact of his crimes. The penalty phase is scheduled to commence on June 26.

During the guilt stage of the trial, Bowers’ defense team did not present a defense, indicating that their focus will be on attempting to save his life. They plan to introduce evidence highlighting Bowers’ schizophrenia, epilepsy, and brain impairments. Defense lawyer Judy Clarke also sought to question Bowers’ motive, suggesting to the jury that his rampage was not driven by religious hatred but by his delusional belief that Jews were aiding in the genocide of refugees in the United States.

The three congregations—Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life—that shared the synagogue building have consistently denounced antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the attack. The Tree of Life congregation is currently working on a comprehensive plan to renovate the synagogue building, which remains standing but has been closed since the shootings. The proposed complex aims to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial, and center for combating antisemitism.

This trial took place three years after President Joe Biden pledged during his 2020 campaign to work toward ending capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still practice it. Attorney General Merrick Garland has temporarily halted executions to review policies and procedures. However, federal prosecutors continue to actively pursue previously issued death sentences and, in some cases, seek the death penalty at trial for eligible crimes, as seen in Bowers’ case.

Michael Rubinkam, a reporter for Big Big News, contributed to this report from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about antisemitic attack

What was the outcome of the trial for the truck driver involved in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack?

The truck driver was found guilty on all 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion as the defense had conceded his responsibility for the attack. Now, the jury will decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole in the upcoming penalty phase.

How severe was the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in terms of casualties?

The attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh resulted in the tragic deaths of 11 congregants, making it the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history. Additionally, seven individuals, including five police officers, were injured by the truck driver’s gunfire.

What evidence was presented to establish the truck driver’s motive?

Prosecutors presented compelling evidence during the trial, revealing the truck driver’s deep-seated animosity towards Jews and immigrants. They showcased his extensive engagement with antisemitic and white supremacist content on the social media platform Gab. Furthermore, his admiration for Hitler and the Holocaust, as well as his explicit statement to the police that “all these Jews need to die,” demonstrated his motives driven by religious hatred.

Will the truck driver’s mental health be considered during the penalty phase?

During the penalty phase, the truck driver’s defense team plans to introduce evidence of his schizophrenia, epilepsy, and brain impairments. They will argue that these conditions played a role in his actions and may seek to mitigate his sentence accordingly. However, it remains to be seen how the jury will weigh these factors against the severity of the crime committed.

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