PITTSBURGH — A jury is set to deliberate whether to impose the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without parole on a man who spewed antisemitic hate before fatally shooting 11 worshippers at a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
The same jurors who convicted 50-year-old Robert Bowers in June on 63 criminal counts listened to closing arguments Monday in the penalty phase of his federal trial, held nearly five years after the truck driver from suburban Baldwin perpetrated the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
The extent to which mental illness and Bowers’ difficult childhood played a role in the massacre dominated the lawyers’ arguments for and against capital punishment. The jury is expected to get the case and begin deliberations Tuesday.
Speaking for the government, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan said Bowers was clearly motivated by religious hatred when he entered the Tree of Life synagogue Oct. 27, 2018, and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, shooting everyone he could find.
The gunman raved incessantly on social media about his hatred of Jewish people — using a slur for Jewish people some 400 times on a platform favored by the far right — and remains proud that he killed Jews, the prosecutor reminded jurors.
“Do not be numb to it. Remember what it means. This defendant targeted people solely because of the faith that they chose,” Olshan said.
He added: “This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law: the death penalty.”
Bowers’ lead defense attorney, Judy Clarke, acknowledged the horror of his crimes but urged jurors to opt for mercy and a life sentence.
Bowers’ attorneys have argued that he has schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder whose symptoms include delusions and hallucinations, and that Bowers attacked the synagogue out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to bring about a genocide of white people by coming to the aid of refugees and immigrants. On Monday, Clarke recounted Bowers’ history of psychiatric hospitalizations, including an extended stay in a residential juvenile mental health program.
The defense also presented evidence of Bowers’ difficult childhood.
“What has happened cannot be undone. We can’t rewind the clock and make it that this senseless crime never happened. All we can do is make the right decision going forward. We are asking you to make the right decision, and that is life,” Clarke said in her closing argument.
A life sentence would mean that “prison is where Mr. Bowers will die in obscurity, not as a hero and not as a martyr,” she said.
Olshan, the prosecutor, disputed the defense experts’ diagnosis of schizophrenia, asserting that Bowers was not suffering psychosis but had chosen to believe white supremacist rhetoric. And while acknowledging that Bowers was a depressed, neglected child, Olshan downplayed the significance of it, noting that Bowers had held jobs, paid bills and was an otherwise functioning adult.
“He was not a child, he was a grown man. He was responsible for his actions, not his family and things that happened decades earlier. He was, he is responsible for his actions,” Olshan said.
Clarke retorted that “childhood matters.”
“It defies reality to say he got better, he’s fine, he’s just an evil guy. What it does is reflects a complete misunderstanding of serious mental illness,” she said.
In order to impose death, jurors must find that aggravating circumstances, which make the crime especially heinous, outweigh mitigating factors that could be seen as diminishing his culpability. Those aggravating circumstances could include the vulnerability of Bowers’ elderly and disabled victims and his targeting of Jewish people.
Olshan played a composite of 911 calls made from inside the synagogue, including audio of people being shot and a survivor’s horrified screams.
He said Bowers had taken “11 people, 11 full lives, 11 people who loved their families, 11 people who loved their friends, 11 people who were loved. … How do you measure the impact of all of that loss?”
The prosecutor spoke about 75-year-old Joyce Fienberg’s care for her family and 65-year-old Richard Gottfried’s devotion to his faith. He said Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, had the ethos of a country doctor: “He loved delivering babies but he never delivered judgment.” David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59, intellectually disabled brothers, “loved life,” Olshan said. “But maybe more than anything, they loved Tree of Life.”
The other deceased victims were Rose Mallinger, 97; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.
The attack also wounded seven people, including five responding police officers. Bowers was shot three times before surrendering when he ran out of ammunition.