Tree of Life Synagogue Killer Gets Death Penalty

August 2, 2023

A federal jury on Wednesday voted to sentence Robert Bowers to death for killing 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, the New York Times reported.

In June, the jury found Bowers, 50, guilty of dozens of federal hate crimes in the trial held at the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. Bowers was convicted of 63 counts, including 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

Two weeks ago, during the first phase of the sentencing portion of the trial, the jury found Bowers to be eligible for the death penalty. Jurors then heard testimony and arguments from both prosecutors and defense attorneys as to whether he deserved to be put to death for the killings.

On June 16, the jury found him guilty on all counts. His defense lawyers did not dispute that he planned and carried out the attack, but argued that he suffered from life-long mental illness and was delusional.

Jurors heard testimony from some of the survivors of the attack and were shown evidence of Bowers's anti-Semitism, including multiple posts attacking Jews made on a far-right website in the months leading up to the attack.

In federal capital cases, a unanimous vote by jurors in a separate penalty phase of the trial is required in order to sentence a defendant to death, and the judge cannot reject the jury's vote. Had the jury been unable to reach a unanimous decision, Bowers would have instead been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville is due to formally sentence Bowers to death at a hearing on Thursday morning, during which some relatives of Bowers's victims are expected to address the court, the Times reported.

The jury's decision on Wednesday marks the first time since President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office in January 2020 that federal prosecutors have successfully sought and won the death penalty.

It is not clear when, if ever, Bowers will be executed: The U.S. Department of Justice has instated a moratorium on carrying out federal executions while it reviews the death penalty, which Biden pledged to abolish when he was running for the presidency.

In the sentencing phase, prosecutors argued that Bowers had the necessary intent and premeditation to qualify for the death penalty. They presented witnesses and evidence to show he carefully planned the attack and deliberately targeted vulnerable elderly worshipers.

Defense lawyers argued that Bowers suffers from major mental illness, including schizophrenia, and so lacked the necessary level of intent.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who hid in a bathroom during the attack, thanked the jury in a statement, saying "it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward."

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Mark Potter)

Published under: Anti-Semitism