Federal prosecutors told the jury on Monday that the man who massacred 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 should be put to death because of his hatred for Jews and continued lack of remorse. US Attorney Eric Olshan said of the defendant, Robert Bowers, “He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in US history, and he is proud of it.”
“This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law – the death penalty,” he said. Defense attorney Judy Clarke, on the other hand, maintained that his troubled upbringing and mental health concerns contributed to his “delusional” ideas. She urged the jury to consider the sentence in light of their own moral convictions.
“You’ve held Rob Bowers accountable. You’ve convicted him of 63 counts, you’ve found him eligible for jury sentencing. Now we ask you to choose life and not death,” she said. Bowers, 50, was found guilty on June 16 of all 63 charges against him for committing the worst ever attack on Jewish people in the United States, and on Monday, the closing arguments were presented in his federal death sentence trial.
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Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial reaches closing arguments on potential death penalty https://t.co/Vj0LbKgUj3
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There were 22 counts that may have resulted in the death penalty. The trial is now at the sentencing phase after the jury decided on July 13 that he was death-eligible. The third and final phase of Bowers’ trial has been dedicated to exploring aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
Family members of victims testified against Bowers, and the prosecution focused on their testimony and on Bowers’ persistent anti-Semitism and lack of remorse. The defense team, meanwhile, focused on Bowers’ troubled upbringing and diagnoses of schizophrenia and epilepsy, among other mental health difficulties.
The jury must reach a unanimous verdict before imposing the death penalty on the shooter. A life sentence without the possibility of release is the alternative. Before Monday’s final arguments, Judge Robert Colville gave the jury a legal instruction in which he referred to the choice between life in prison and death as “a uniquely individual moral judgment.”
“Whether or not the circumstances in this case justify a sentence of death rather than a sentence of life imprisonment without release is a decision that the law leaves entirely to you,” he said.
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The Contrasting Closing Arguments
Prosecutors argued that the defendant’s bias towards Jews, the synagogue’s selection as a target, injuries to surviving victims, lack of remorse, and victim impact all constitute aggravating circumstances that should be taken into account by the jury in its deliberations.
“Eleven people, 11 full lives, 11 people who loved their families, 11 people who loved their friends, 11 people who were loved,” Olshan said. “Eight-hundred-and-thirteen years of life gone in less time than it took me to give you even the briefest window into how unique these people were. This man murdered every single one of them.”
Olshan refuted the defense’s psychiatric diagnoses as well. Saying, “He is just a man who subscribes to common antisemitic, extremist beliefs and was very effective using his very high IQ to plan and carry out a mass shooting against Jews,” he explained the shooter’s motivations and background.
The defense team said the attack was horrific but asked the jury to focus on the following steps. It is too late to change what has happened, Clarke said. We can’t undo the consequences of this stupid act of violence. Making the best choice for the future is all we can do. And we’re counting on you to make a choice that matters immensely because it’s your life.
Clarke elaborated on Bowers’ tumultuous upbringing and the mental health issues that led to his isolation and loneliness by the middle of the 2010s. “He succumbed to his mental illness, to his delusional beliefs, and brought us where we are today,” she said.
What Happened in the Attack?
On a wet Saturday morning, Bowers opened fire inside the synagogue with an AR-15-style weapon, killing multiple people in an act of antisemitic hatred. Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light were all holding their weekly Shabbat services at the synagogue that day. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant, and a 60-something-year-old married couple who had met and married in the same synagogue.
The shooter had been posting racist and anti-Semitic comments on Gab, a minor social media platform, for years before the attack. He referred to immigrants as “invaders” and was quite critical of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a charity that helps refugees and which recently had an event with the Dor Hadash synagogue.
Witnesses at Bowers’ trial testified that even after his arrest, he continued to maintain his antisemitic convictions in jailhouse examinations conducted earlier this year. Vice President Joe Biden, who campaigned against the death penalty, is now prosecuting his second federal death penalty case.
In the first case of its kind, a terrorist was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole for plowing a U-Haul truck down a New York City bike lane, killing eight people and injuring dozens more. Both incidents predated Trump’s presidency. The federal death penalty has been suspended during the Biden administration.
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