Robert BowersThe gunman who killed 11 worshipers and wounded six others at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 in the deadliest attack ever on Jewish people in the United States was unanimously sentenced to death by a federal jury on Wednesday.
It is the first federal death penalty imposed under the Biden administration, which has placed a moratorium on executions.
The decision to sentence the perpetrator to death had to be unanimous. Otherwise, Bowers would have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Jurors spent just over 10 hours deliberating over the past two days. They asked the court two questions: one to examine the weapons used in the shooting and another to ask for a copy of documents about the gunman’s family history.
The death sentence represents the end of a saga that began on October 27, 2018, when Bowers burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue and shot people with an AR-15-style rifle. At the time, the synagogue hosted three congregations – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light – for weekly Shabbat services.
They killed include a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple married in the synagogue more than 60 years earlier. Of the six injured survivors, four were police officers who responded to the scene. Eight people were inside the building escaped unscathed.
Bowers, 50, was sentenced on June 16 of all 63 charges against him for the mass shooting. 22 of these cases were capital offences. The jury further found that he was eligible for the death penalty on July 13, moving the trial to a third and final sentencing phase.
The trial’s final phase focused on aggravating and mitigating factors potentially applicable to Bowers. Prosecutors argued that Bowers carried out the killings because of his hatred of the Jewish people and highlighted testimony from the victims’ family members who spoke about their loved ones as well as Bowers’ lack of remorse for his actions.
Robert Bowers takes notes in court on Monday.
“He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst anti-Semitic mass shooting in American history, and he’s proud of it,” said US Attorney Eric Olshan said as closing arguments Monday.
“This is a case that calls for the severest punishment under the law – the death penalty,” he said.
Bowers’ defense emphasized his difficult childhood and mental health issues, including what they say is a delusional system and diagnoses of schizophrenia and epilepsy.
“You have held Rob Bowers accountable. You have convicted him of 63 counts. You have found him entitled to a jury trial. Now we ask you to choose life and not death,” defense attorney Judy Clarke said Monday.
The jury unanimously found proven all five of the prosecution’s aggravating factors advanced at this stage of the trial. The defense presented 115 mitigating factors, and while the jury agreed with some of the more factual elements, they rejected some of the defense’s central arguments.
For example, none of the jurors found that he “suffers from delusions,” that he “is a person with schizophrenia,” or that he “committed the offense under mental or emotional disturbance.” Furthermore, none of the jurors agreed that he was a “model pre-trial prisoner” or that he “conducted himself respectfully in court.”
The formal sentencing is set to take place on Thursday.
Judge Robert Colville appeared emotional as he thanked the jury after the decision. He said he has thanked hundreds of jurors with a similar speech over the years, but “I’ve never delivered it with as much sincerity as I did right now.”
The 11 people killed in the attack were Irving Younger, 69; Melvin Wax, 87; Rose Mallinger, 97; married couple Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Daniel Stein, 71; and brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54.
The family of Mallinger and her daughter Andrea Wedner issued a statement thanking the jury, prosecutors and others involved in the trial.
“While we will never gain closure from the loss of our beloved Rose Mallinger, we now feel that some degree of justice has been served,” the family said in a statement. “This sentence is a testament to our justice system and a message to all that this type of heinous act will not be tolerated. Returning a death sentence is not a decision that comes lightly, but we must hold accountable those who wish to commit such horrific acts of anti-Semitism, hatred and violence.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Congregation, which survived the attack, said the jury’s decision represents the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
“Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence, it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward,” he said in a statement. “As we do, I have my faith strengthened by the embrace and respect with which my community has been treated by our government and our fellow citizens. For this, and the seriousness with which the jury took its duty, I am eternally grateful.”
Leaders of the New Light congregation thanked the jury for their efforts, although they acknowledged conflicting feelings about the death penalty.
“As a congregation, we were prepared to accept both decisions: death or life in prison. Many of our members would prefer that the shooter spend the rest of his life in prison, questioning whether we should seek revenge or revenge on him , or whether his death would ‘compensate’ for the lives lost. A heated debate continues about the purpose of the death penalty,” said Co-Presidents Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan.
Still, they said the congregation ultimately agreed with the government’s position.
“Life in prison without parole would allow the shooter to celebrate his deed for many years,” they wrote. “New Light Congregation accepts the jury’s decision and believes that we as a community need to decide that this act warrants the ultimate punishment under the law.”
The trial began in May and included testimony from the people who escaped the chaos and jarring audio of a 911 call from one of the victims.
Those who survived the shooting testified of hiding in closets and listening to the last words of their friends and loved ones. Law enforcement officers also testified that they were fired upon as they responded to the attack before Bowers ultimately ran out of ammunition and surrendered.
The prosecution even entered evidence a prayer book with a bullet holea symbol of today’s destruction.
“It’s a testament to the horror of the day,” Myers testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”
Prior to the attack, Bowers spent years posting hateful comments about immigrants and Jews on Gab, a small social media platform then used by far-right extremists. He criticized migrants as “aggressors” and repeatedly disparaged the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit organization that provides aid to refugees, which had recently held an event with the Dor Hadash congregation.
Bowers further expressed his hatred of immigrants and Jews when he was arrested and continued to defend his anti-Semitic beliefs in prison evaluations earlier this year, witnesses testified in the trial.
This is the second federal death penalty case to be prosecuted under the administration of President Joe Biden, who had criticized the death penalty on the campaign trail. In the first case involving a terrorist who drove a U-Haul truck into cyclists and pedestrians on a bike path in New York, the jury did not reach a unanimous decision, leading to a sentence of life without parole. Both cases were detentions by the Trump administration.