The federal jury trial of the suspect in the deadliest antisemitic attack ever in the United States is scheduled to begin Tuesday morning, four and a half years after the shooting deaths of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Twelve jurors and six alternates chosen after a month of questioning of more than 200 jury candidates will hear the case against Robert Bowers. The jurors include 11 women and seven men.
Bowers, 50, could face the death penalty if convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The attack claimed the lives of 11 worshipers from three congregations sharing the building, Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life. Charges include 11 counts each of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.
Prosecutors have said Bowers made antisemitic comments at the scene of the attack and online.
In proceedings before and during juror questioning, the defense has done little to cast doubt on whether Bowers was the gunman, instead focusing on preventing his execution.
Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down. Bowers’ defense attorneys also recently said he has schizophrenia and brain impairments.
As an indication that the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial seems almost a foregone conclusion, Bowers' defense team spent little time in the jury selection process asking how potential jurors would come to a verdict.
Instead, the team focused on the penalty phase and how jurors would decide whether to impose the death penalty in a case of a man charged with hate-motivated killings in a house of worship. The defense probed whether potential jurors could consider factors such as mental illness or a difficult childhood.
Most observers expect Bowers to be convicted, which would result in a third phase of the trial focused on sentencing during which victims’ family members and other community leaders would testify. Some relatives of the massacre’s victims have pushed for Bowers to be executed, while leaders of two of the three congregations have previously advocated against the death penalty.
The trial is taking place in the downtown Pittsburgh courthouse of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, presided over by Judge Robert Colville, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
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.
Bowers also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.
In a filing earlier this year, prosecutors said Bowers “harbored 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.
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.”
The three congregations have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the shootings. The Tree of Life Congregation also is working with partners on plans to overhaul its current building, which still stands but has been closed since the shootings, by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.
First published: 13:46, 05.30.23