Pittsburgh synagogue gunman found guilty in the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, could face death penalty

Jurors must now decide whether Robert Bowers should be sent to death row or sentenced to life in prison without parole.

By Peter Smith, Associated Press

A truck driver who spewed hatred of Jews was convicted Friday of storming a Pittsburgh synagogue and shooting everyone he could find on a Sabbath morning, killing 11 congregants in an act of antisemitic terror for which he could be sentenced to die.

The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion after Robert Bowers’ lawyers conceded at the trial’s outset that he attacked and killed worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Jurors must now decide whether the 50-year-old should be sent to death row or sentenced to life in prison without parole as the federal trial shifts to a penalty phase expected to last several weeks.

Bowers was convicted of all 63 criminal counts he faced, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. His attorneys had offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors refused, opting instead to take the case to trial and pursue the death penalty. Most of the victims’ families supported that decision.

“I am grateful to God for getting us to this day,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, who survived the attack, said in a written statement. “And I am thankful for the law enforcement who ran into danger to rescue me, and the U.S. Attorney who stood up in court to defend my right to pray.”

The jury deliberated for about five hours over two days before reaching a verdict. Bowers, wearing a dark sweater and blue shirt, had little reaction. Several survivors and victims’ relatives were in the courtroom, bearing quiet witness. Sniffles could be heard in the gallery as the judge intoned “guilty” dozens of times.

Bowers, who had raged against Jews online and at the synagogue, turned a sacred house of worship into a “hunting ground,” targeting his victims because of their religion, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Reading each of the 11 victims’ names, prosecutor Mary Hahn asked the jury to “hold this defendant accountable … and hold him accountable for those who cannot testify.”

All three congregations sharing the building — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life — lost members in the attack. The victims ranged in age from 54 to 97.

Congregational leaders said the trial opened new wounds but was also validating.

“We learned things that we did not know,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light. “… In that sense, it was traumatizing. But it’s also, in a sense, cathartic because you did hear what happened.”

Jo Recht, president of Dor Hadash, applauded the prosecutors’ solid case.

“They drew a picture that was even more horrific than we had imagined,” Recht said. “And the level of antisemitism, the level of hatred, the volume of the outrageous (social media) posts was really sobering and really frightening. So for the jury to come back so quickly with the verdict of guilty on all 63 counts was affirming, and it was a relief.”

Prosecutors presented evidence of Bowers’ deep-seated animosity toward Jews and immigrants. Over 11 days of testimony, jurors learned that he had extensively posted, shared or liked antisemitic and white supremacist content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right, and praised Hitler and the Holocaust. Bowers told police that “all these Jews need to die,” Hahn said.

Jewish community members were bracing for the next stage of the trial, which would determine if Bowers is eligible for and should receive the death penalty. The penalty phase is scheduled to start June 26.

“It’s just as traumatic,” Cohen said. “Because now we get into learning about the shooter. In four and a half years, he has said nothing. We don’t know who he is. … There’s no background, nothing other than the Gab posts. So we’re going to be learning what kind of horrible human being he really is.”

Bowers, who was armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, also shot and wounded seven, including five responding police officers.

Survivors testified about their terror on that day, including a woman who recounted how she was shot in the arm and then realized her 97-year-old-mother had been shot and killed right next to her. Andrea Wedner, the trial’s last witness, told jurors she touched her mother’s lifeless body and cried out, “Mommy,” before SWAT officers led her to safety.

Other survivors testified of hiding or fleeing for their lives, of making final prayers as they expected to die, of saying farewell to their slain fellow congregants. The slain were among the congregations’ stalwarts, always on time for Sabbath activities, many of which they led.

Bowers’ attorneys did not mount a defense at the guilt stage of the trial, signaling they will focus their efforts on trying to save his life. They plan to introduce evidence that Bowers has schizophrenia, epilepsy and brain impairments. Defense lawyer Judy Clarke had also sought to raise questions about Bowers’ motive, suggesting to jurors that his rampage was not motivated by religious hatred but his delusional belief that Jews were committing genocide by helping refugees settle in the United States.

The congregations have spoken out against antisemitism and other bigotry since the attack. The Tree of Life congregation also is working on a plan to overhaul the synagogue building — which still stands but has been closed since the shootings — by creating a complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.

President Joe Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has paused executions to review policies and procedures. But federal prosecutors continue to work to uphold already-issued death sentences and, in some cases, to pursue the death penalty at trial for crimes that are eligible, as in Bowers’ case.

Killed were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; Irving Younger, 69.

Ellen Surloff, who was Dor Hadash president at the time of the attack, said hearing the guilty verdicts was a relief.

“Fighting antisemitism was always important to my family,” she said. “My mother passed away not long after the shooting. So from a personal matter, the first thought that went to my head was, I wish she could have been alive to hear the verdict, to hear this horrible, horrible monster convicted for what he did on Oct. 27.”