The gunman who stormed a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and killed 11 worshippers will be sentenced to death for perpetrating the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, a jury decided Wednesday.
Robert Bowers spewed hatred of Jews and espoused white supremacist beliefs online before methodically planning and carrying out the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study. Bowers, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, also wounded two worshippers and five responding police officers.
The same federal jury that convicted the 50-year-old Bowers on 63 criminal counts recommended Wednesday that he be put to death for an attack whose impacts continue to reverberate nearly five years later.
He showed little reaction as the sentence was announced, briefly acknowledging his legal team and family as he was led from the courtroom. A judge will formally impose the sentence later.
Jurors were unanimous in finding that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jews and that he chose Tree of Life for its location in one the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the US so that he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instil fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.” They also found that Bowers lacked remorse.
The verdict came after a lengthy trial in which jurors heard in chilling detail how Bowers reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot, and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition. In the sentencing phase, grieving family members told the jury about the lives that Bowers took — a 97-year-old woman and intellectually disabled brothers among them — and the unrelenting pain of their loss. Survivors testified about their own lasting pain, both physical and emotional.
First time federal prosecutors imposed capital punishment during Biden's presidency
Donald Trump, then the US president, called for Bowers to receive the death penalty, which federal prosecutors formally requested in August 2019.
Wednesday's verdict marks the first time federal prosecutors have sought and won a death sentence during Biden's presidency.
It has not, however, carried out any executions since he came to power in January 2021.
Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on executions in July 2021 after the Trump administration oversaw a record 13 executions in its final months.
For Bowers to be executed, the moratorium would need to be lifted or a new president come to power.
Bowers did not dispute that he had shot the congregants but he argued that he had not been motivated by a hatred of Jewish people.
His defence team claimed that he suffered from schizophrenia and had offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison, which was rejected by the prosecution.
Most victims’ families, but not all, said Bowers should die for his crimes.
“Many of our members prefer that the shooter spend the rest of his life in prison, questioning whether we should seek vengeance or revenge against him or whether his death would 'make up' for the lost lives,” according to a statement from Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan, co-presidents of New Light Congregation, which lost three members of the attack.
But the congregation as a whole, they wrote, "agrees with the government’s position that no one may murder innocent individuals simply because of their religion.
New Light Congregation accepts the jury’s decision and believes that, as a society, we need to take a stand that this act requires the ultimate penalty under the law."
Bowers’ lawyers never contested his guilt, focusing their efforts on trying to save his life. They presented evidence of a horrific childhood marked by trauma and neglect.
They also claimed Bowers had a severe, untreated mental illness, saying he killed out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to cause genocide of white people.
The defence argued that schizophrenia and brain abnormalities made Bowers more susceptible to being influenced by the extremist content he found online.
Jewish organizations welcomed the verdict.
Michael Masters, chief executive of the Secure Community Network, which provides security advice to American Jewish institutions, said the sentence was "another step on the path to justice."
It "sends a message to violent extremists, terrorists, and antisemites everywhere that the United States will not tolerate hate and violence against the Jewish people, nor any people of faith," he added in a statement.
The American Jewish Committee said that "what should always be top of mind is the memory" of the victims murdered by "a cold-blooded hater of Jews."
The synagogue has been closed since the shootings. The Tree of Life congregation is working on an overhauled synagogue complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and centre for fighting antisemitism.
“It was a challenge to move forward with the looming spectre of a murder trial," said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, who survived the attack.
“Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence, it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward.”