Jury begins deliberations on whether Pittsburgh synagogue shooter should be sentenced to death

The jury in the trial of Robert Bowers, the gunman who killed 11 worshippers and wounded six others at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, began deliberations Tuesday morning on whether to sentence him to death.

A decision to sentence the gunman to death must be unanimous. Otherwise, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The deliberations began at about 9:30 a.m. ET, and shortly afterward the jury requested and was granted the ability to examine the weapons used in the shooting.

Bowers, 50, was found guilty on June 16 of all 63 charges against him for the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, the deadliest ever attack on Jewish people in the US. Twenty-two of those counts were capital offenses.

The jury further found he was eligible for the death penalty on July 13, moving the trial to a third and final sentencing stage.

The final phase of the trial focused on aggravating and mitigating factors that potentially apply to Bowers. The prosecution highlighted testimony from victims’ family members talking about their loved ones, as well as Bowers’ continued hatred toward Jews and lack of remorse about his actions.

“He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in US history, and he is proud of it,” US Attorney Eric Olshan said at closing arguments Monday.

“This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law – the death penalty,” he said.

Meanwhile, the defense emphasized Bowers’ difficult childhood and mental health issues, including what they say is a delusional belief system and diagnoses of schizophrenia and epilepsy.

“You’ve held Rob Bowers accountable. You’ve convicted him of 63 counts. You’ve found him eligible for jury sentencing. Now we ask you to choose life and not death,” defense attorney Judy Clarke said Monday.

What happened in the attack

Mourners visit memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh,. - Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Mourners visit memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh,. – Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The trial comes nearly five years since Bowers burst into the synagogue on a rainy Saturday morning and began shooting people using an AR-15-style rifle. The synagogue was hosting three congregations that day – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light – for weekly Shabbat services.

The victims included a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

In court, those who survived the shooting testified about hiding in closets and listening to the final words of their friends and loved ones. Law enforcement officers – four of whom were wounded – also testified that they were fired upon when responding to the attack before Bowers ultimately ran out of ammo and surrendered.

The prosecution even entered into evidence a prayer book with a bullet hole, a symbol of the day’s destruction.

“It’s a witness to the horror of the day,” Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”

Prior to the attack, the gunman spent years posting hateful comments about immigrants and Jewish people on Gab, a small social media platform then used by far-right extremists. He criticized migrants as “invaders” and repeatedly disparaged the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit organization providing support to refugees that had recently held an event with the Dor Hadash congregation.

Bowers further expressed his hatred for immigrants and Jews as he was being arrested and continued to defend his antisemitic beliefs in jailhouse evaluations earlier this year, witnesses testified in the trial.

This is the second federal death penalty case to be prosecuted under the administration of President Joe Biden, who had criticized the death penalty on the campaign trail. In the first such case, concerning a terrorist who drove a U-Haul truck into cyclists and pedestrians on a New York City bike path, the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision, leading to a sentence of life without parole. Both cases were holdovers from the Trump administration.

At the same time, the Biden administration has put a moratorium on federal executions.

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