Death penalty trial begins for accused in Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting


Jury selection will begin Monday in the federal death penalty trial of a truck driver accused of shooting 11 Jewish worshippers to death at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Robert G. Bowers, who is from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 counts in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three Jewish congregations were holding Sabbath activities. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

If convicted, Bowers, 50, could get the death sentence. He offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down. His lawyers also recently said he has schizophrenia and structural and functional brain impairments.

Federal executions resumed during Donald Trump’s presidency after a 17-year hiatus, and 13 federal inmates were put to death during his last six months in office. Joe Biden indicated during the 2020 campaign he would work to end the federal death penalty, but his Justice Department has not intervened in the Bowers case.

Prosecutors outline range of evidence

During the trial, prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements Bowers allegedly made to investigators, an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred, and the guns recovered from him at the crime scene where police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.

Prosecutors indicated in court filings that they might introduce autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were subsequently shot to death. They have said their evidence includes a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock .357 handguns and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets and bullet fragments.

Bowers also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.

In a filing earlier this month, prosecutors said Bowers “harboured deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.

During a 2021 pretrial hearing, two police officers testified to antisemitic statements Bowers made in a calm fashion in interviews with authorities. 

Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Bowers had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”

Co-presidents of New Light Congregation, Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan, visit a memorial in the New Light Cemetery honouring the congregants they lost during the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, on April 19. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville, who was nominated to the court by President Donald Trump more than three years ago, will preside over the trial. He previously spent nearly two decades as a county judge in Pittsburgh.

The three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the shootings. All three congregations have been meeting in nearby synagogues since the attack closed the Tree of Life building.

The Tree of Life Congregation is also working with partners on plans to renovate and rebuild its synagogue, which still stands, by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and centre for fighting antisemitism.

Antisemitic attacks rose last year in U.S.: report

Less than a year after the Tree of Life massacre, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, Calif. The 19-year-old gunman, who was connected to an online manifesto espousing antisemitism, was sentenced in 2021 to life without parole in the shooting that killed one person and injured three, including a synagogue rabbi.

In early 2022, a British national was shot and killed by a tactical unit after taking hostages at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

Earlier this month, a report was released by Tel Aviv University’s Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), indicating that antisemitism rose in the U.S. in 2022.

Last year’s report found that 2021 set a new high for antisemitic incidents, with the coronavirus pandemic fuelling a worldwide rise in antisemitism. This year, the researchers said that “2022 did not mark a universal reversal of the trend, and in some countries, most alarmingly the United States, it intensified.”

The ADL found that the number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by more than 35 per cent, from 2,721 in 2021 to 3,697 in 2022.

The researchers found that visibly identifiable Jews, particularly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are also known as haredi Jews, are the primary targets of antisemitic violence in the West.

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