Most prospective jurors said Monday that if they found a man guilty of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the bloodiest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, they would be willing to sentence him to death.
The first day of jury selection in the trial of 50-year-old Robert G. Bowers, who faces 63 counts in the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three Jewish congregations were performing Sabbath activities, came to a close on Friday.
The allegations include 11 counts of obstructing religious freedom that resulted in death and 11 counts of hate crimes that resulted in death.
If convicted, Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces the death penalty. He offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down, despite the fact that Joe Biden stated three years ago during his presidential campaign that if elected, he would try to abolish the federal death penalty. Bowers’ lawyers have revealed that he suffers from schizophrenia as well as anatomical and functional brain impairments.
For the commencement of the trial, it was calm outside the courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. U.S. District Judge Robert Colville opened the proceedings by thanking potential jurors for their service, summarizing the case, and outlining the trial’s phases. As the court spoke, Bowers sat with his attorneys, looking over documents.
The courtroom gallery was mostly empty, with the exception of a small handful of relatives of those killed and at least one survivor of the attack.
Prosecutors, defense counsel, and the judge spent around 30 minutes interviewing each of the approximately 15 jurors who were to be called. The majority of questions focused on whether the candidates would be willing to impose the death penalty and, if so, whether they would be open to hearing mitigating evidence, such as information about the defendant’s mental state or childhood.
Most answered they would be willing to entertain a sentence of death or life in prison, however a number of candidates claimed they were primarily or fully opposed to the death penalty in the afternoon.
One of them came out firmly in support of capital punishment, saying “there needs to be repercussions.” Another said a house of worship “should have been a safe place” and that she couldn’t imagine a worse crime. But she also said that after sitting behind Bowers during a previous hearing, she realized ”he’s a person, not a monster.”
By the end of the day, several jurors were subjects of motions to be removed, either by one side or the other or by agreement. The motions are pending. The court plans to select 12 jurors and six alternates.
Once a jury is seated, 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.
Families of those deceased were divided on whether the government should pursue the death penalty, although the majority supported it.
In court files, prosecutors indicated that they would submit autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were later shot to death. They claim to have a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock.357 handguns, and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets, and bullet fragments as evidence.
According to officials, Bowers also injured seven persons, including five police officers who responded to the incident.
In an filing earlier this month, 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.
During a 2021 pretrial hearing, Officer Clint Thimons testified Bowers was “very calm and he said he’s had enough and that Jews are killing our children and the Jews had to die.” Another officer, David Blahut, said Bowers told him “these people are committing genocide on my people and I want to kill Jews.”
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.”
Colville, who was appointed to the court by President Donald Trump more than three years ago, previously served as a county judge in Pittsburgh for over two decades.
Since the shootings, the three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light — have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of intolerance. The Tree of Life Congregation is also collaborating with partners on plans to rehabilitate and reconstruct its still-standing synagogue by constructing a complex that will house a sanctuary, museum, memorial, and anti-antisemitism center.
The death sentence trial is underway three years after Biden stated during his 2020 campaign that he would try to abolish capital punishment at the federal and state levels. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily halted executions in order to evaluate policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors are working hard to uphold existing death sentences and, in certain cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.