Justice Served: Death Sentence for Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter

A jury concluded on Wednesday that the man responsible for the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history — the shooting of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — should be put to death.

The 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where three congregations had gathered for Sabbath prayer and study, was meticulously planned and carried out by Robert Bowers, who had previously vented his anti-Semitic and white supremacist views online.

Baldwin neighborhood truck driver Bowers shot and injured two worshippers and five police officers who responded to the scene. The federal jury that found Bowers guilty on 63 counts of criminal activity also recommended that he be put to die for an attack the effects of which may still be felt nearly five years later.

He didn’t seem to care much about the sentence being handed down, and he barely even acknowledged his lawyers or family before being led out of the courthouse. On Thursday, a judge will officially hand down the sentence.

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The jury reached a unanimous verdict that Bowers was motivated by anti-Semitism in carrying out the attack, and that he specifically targeted Tree of Life because it is located in one of the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the United States, with the intent to “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.”

Bowers exhibited no remorse, as was also discovered. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, spoke at a news conference after the verdict was announced, and he mentioned that Wednesday was a “day of love” in 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 Rose Mallinger, 97, who was slain, and Andrea Wedner, who was shot and injured, expressed gratitude to the jury and said, “a measure of justice has been served.” Judy Clarke, Bowers’ primary defense counsel, declined to comment.

Justice Served Death Sentence for Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter (1)

After a lengthy trial, jurors reached their decision after hearing harrowing testimony about how Bowers reloaded his gun at least twice, stepped over the bodies of his victims to hunt for more people to shoot, and only surrendered after he ran out of bullets.

Members of the victims’ families testified during the sentencing phase, sharing their heartbreaking stories of loss for the elderly and intellectually challenged brothers who were killed by Bowers. Physical and emotional wounds were described by survivors who testified.

Although Bowers was observed talking at length with his legal team during recesses, he exhibited little reaction to the hearing that would decide his fate, instead staring down at documents or screens at the defense table. He told a psychiatrist that he saw the trial as a way to get his antisemitic message out to the public.

It was the first federal death sentence handed out by Joe Biden, who promised to abolish the death penalty if elected in 2020. The death penalty has been suspended at the federal level and hundreds of new cases where it could apply have been denied authorization under Biden’s Justice Department.

Federal prosecutors, however, have argued that Bowers should be executed because of the fragility of his mostly elderly victims and because he targeted a religious community out of hatred.

“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.”

Nearly every family member of a victim has called for Bowers’ execution. Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan, co-presidents of New Light Congregation, which lost three members in the attack, said in a statement that “many of our members prefer that the shooter spend the rest of his life in prison,” though they questioned whether “we should seek vengeance or revenge against him” or whether the shooter’s death would “make up” for the lost lives.

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They concluded that the congregation “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.” In their efforts to preserve Bowers’ life, Bowers’ attorneys never once disputed his guilt. They gave proof of a terrible upbringing full of abuse and neglect.

According to them, Bowers committed the murders because of a mistaken belief that Jews were aiding in a plot to exterminate white people. The defense maintained that Bowers’s susceptibility to influence by the extremist content he found online was exacerbated by his schizophrenia and neurological abnormalities.

Bowers breached the sanctity of a house of worship by opening fire on terrified attendees with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, shooting everyone he could locate, according to the prosecution, who denied that mental illness played any role in the crime.

Most of the main defense arguments for a life sentence were rejected by the jury, including that he suffers from schizophrenia and that his delusions about Jewish people prompted the attack. His troubled upbringing was taken into account by the jury, but they attributed greater weight to the seriousness of the crimes.

On October 27, 2018, Bowers opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people who worshiped at the Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life congregations.

Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, David and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86; Dan Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 87, and Irving Younger, 69, were all killed, in addition to Mallinger.

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At the scene, Bowers told responding police, “all these Jews need to die,” after he had been shot three times in a gun battle. He used Gab, a forum popular among the far right, to post, like, and distribute a steady stream of viciously antisemitic information before the incident.

He told mental health professionals he regarded himself as a soldier in a race war, that he was proud of the attack, and that he wished he had shot more people. He has shown no remorse for the deaths. On Wednesday, Martin Gaynor, a member of Dor Hadash and a survivor of an attack, stated that antisemitism is on the upswing.

They “know where this leads,” he continued, referring to “a dark path that descends into hate, violence, and destruction.” This is not just harmful for Jews but for America as a whole. When we let hate into our hearts, we bring shame onto ourselves.

During the sentencing portion of the trial, family members of the victims gave poignant testimony about what Bowers took from them. Sharyn Stein, Dan Stein’s wife, addressed the jury and said, “My world has fallen apart.”

When Bowers is formally sentenced by the judge, survivors and those touched by the incident will have another chance to speak to the court — and Bowers. Due to the violence, the synagogue is currently shuttered. The Tree of Life congregation is currently renovating their synagogue to include a new sanctuary, museum, memorial, and anti-racism resource center.

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