PITTSBURGH (AP) — The gunman who stormed a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and killed 11 worshippers will be sentenced to death for perpetrating the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, a jury decided Wednesday.
Robert Bowers spewed hatred of Jews and espoused white supremacist beliefs online before methodically planning and carrying out the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study. Bowers, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, also wounded two worshippers and five responding police officers.
The same federal jury that convicted the 50-year-old Bowers on 63 criminal counts recommended that he be put to death for an attack whose impacts continue to reverberate nearly five years later. He showed little reaction as the sentence was announced, briefly acknowledging his legal team and family as he was led from the courtroom. A judge will formally impose the sentence Thursday.
Jurors were unanimous in finding that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jews, and that he chose Tree of Life for its location in one the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the U.S. so that he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.” They also found that Bowers lacked remorse.
‘An immense embrace from the halls of justice’
At a news conference after the verdict, attack survivor Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation noted that Wednesday was a “day of love” on the Hebrew calendar.
“I don’t believe in coincidences. Today we received an immense embrace from the halls of justice,” he said, taking the jury’s decision as an affirmation that “we have the right to practice our Judaism and no one will ever take that right away from us.”
The family of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the attack, and her daughter, Andrea Wedner, who was shot and wounded, thanked the jurors and said “a measure of justice has been served.”
Bowers’ lead defense attorney, Judy Clarke, declined comment.
The verdict came after a lengthy trial in which jurors heard in chilling detail how Bowers reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot, and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition. In the sentencing phase, grieving family members told the jury about the lives that Bowers took — elderly people and intellectually disabled brothers among them — and the unrelenting pain of their loss. Survivors testified about their own lasting pain, both physical and emotional.
Through it all, Bowers showed little reaction to the proceeding that would decide his fate — typically looking down at papers or screens at the defense table — though he could be seen conversing at length with his legal team during breaks. He told a psychiatrist that he thought the trial was helping to spread his antisemitic message.
It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, who pledged during his 2020 campaign to end capital punishment. Biden’s Justice Department has placed a moratorium on federal executions and has declined to authorize the death penalty in hundreds of new cases where it could apply. But federal prosecutors said death was the appropriate punishment for Bowers, citing the vulnerability of his mainly elderly victims and his hate-based targeting of a religious community.
“While today’s unanimous decision by a federal jury in Pittsburgh is an important act of accountability, it will never bring back the eleven people who lost their lives or heal the grief and trauma of their loved ones,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton, adding that Biden was “praying for the victims’ families, and for all those in the broader community who have been so deeply impacted by this tragedy.”
Congregation supports ‘ultimate penalty under the law’
Almost all of the victims’ families said Bowers should die for his crimes.
“Many of our members prefer that the shooter spend the rest of his life in prison, questioning whether we should seek vengeance or revenge against him or whether his death would ‘make up’ for the lost lives,” according to a statement from Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan, co-presidents of New Light Congregation, which lost three members in the attack.
But the congregation as a whole, they wrote, “accepts the jury’s decision and believes that, as a society, we need to take a stand that this act requires the ultimate penalty under the law.”
Bowers’ lawyers never contested his guilt, focusing their efforts on trying to save his life. They presented evidence of a horrific childhood marked by trauma and neglect. They also claimed Bowers had severe, untreated mental illness, saying he killed out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to cause a genocide of white people. The defense argued that schizophrenia and brain abnormalities made Bowers more susceptible to being influenced by the extremist content he found online.
The prosecution denied mental illness had anything to do with it, saying Bowers knew exactly what he was doing when he violated the sanctity of a house of worship by opening fire on terrified congregants with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, shooting everyone he could find.
The jury sided with prosecutors, specifically rejecting most of the primary defense arguments for a life sentence, including that he has schizophrenia and that his delusions about Jewish people spurred the attack. Jurors did find that his difficult childhood merited consideration, but gave more weight to the severity of the crimes.
Pittsburgh synagogue shooter expressed no remorse
Bowers blasted his way into Tree of Life on Oct. 27, 2018, and killed members of the Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations, which shared the synagogue building.
The deceased victims, in addition to Mallinger, were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.
Bowers, who traded gunfire with responding officers and was shot three times, told police at the scene that “all these Jews need to die,” according to testimony. Ahead of the attack, he posted, liked or shared a stream of virulently antisemitic content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right. He has expressed no remorse for the killings, telling mental health experts he saw himself as a soldier in a race war, took pride in the attack and wished he had shot more people.
Martin Gaynor, a Dor Hadash member and attack survivor, said Wednesday that antisemitism is on the rise. All those affected by the massacre “know where this leads,” he said, “a dark path that descends into hate, violence and destruction. This is not only bad for Jews, it’s bad for our entire country. If we permit hate to enter our hearts, we ourselves are diminished.”
In emotional testimony during the trial’s sentencing phase, the victims’ family members described what Bowers took from them. “My world has fallen apart,” Sharyn Stein, Dan Stein’s widow, told the jury.
Survivors and other affected by the attack will have another opportunity to address the court — and Bowers — when he is formally sentenced by the judge.
The synagogue has been closed since the shootings. The Tree of Life congregation is working on an overhauled synagogue complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.