By Peter Smith and Mark Scolforo
Most prospective jurors said Monday that if they were to convict a man of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, they would be capable of sentencing him to die.
The first day of Jury selection concluded in the trial of 50-year-old Robert G. Bowers, who faces 63 counts in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three Jewish congregations were holding Sabbath activities. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.
Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, could get the death sentence if convicted. He offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down even though Joe Biden pledged while campaigning for president three years ago that, if elected, he would work to end the federal death penalty. Bowers' lawyers also recently said he has schizophrenia and structural and functional brain impairments.
It was quiet outside the courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the start of the trial. U.S. District Judge Robert Colville began proceedings by thanking prospective jurors for their service, summarizing the case and describing the trial's phases. Bowers sat with his attorneys and looked at documents as the judge spoke.
The courtroom gallery was largely empty, though a small group of relatives of those who were killed and at least one survivor of the attack were present.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge spent about 30 minutes questioning each of about 15 jurors to be called. Most questions revolved around whether the candidates would be willing to impose the death sentence and, if so, whether they would be open to considering mitigating evidence, including about the defendant's mental state or childhood.
Most said they would be able to consider a sentence of death or life in prison, though a couple of candidates in the afternoon said they were mostly or entirely opposed to the death penalty.
One of them came out firmly in support of capital punishment, saying “there needs to be repercussions.” Another said a house of worship “should have been a safe place” and that she couldn't imagine a worse crime. But she also said that after sitting behind Bowers during a previous hearing, she realized ”he’s a person, not a monster.”
By the end of the day, several jurors were subjects of motions to be removed, either by one side or the other or by agreement. The motions are pending.
The court plans to select 12 jurors and six alternates.
Once a jury is seated, prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements Bowers allegedly made to investigators, an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred, and the guns recovered from him at the crime scene where police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.
The families of those killed were divided over whether the government should pursue the death penalty, but most were in favor.
Prosecutors indicated in court filings that they might introduce autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were subsequently shot to death. They have said their evidence includes a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock .357 handguns and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets and bullet fragments.
Bowers also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.
In an filing earlier this month, prosecutors said Bowers “harbored deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.
During a 2021 pretrial hearing, Officer Clint Thimons testified Bowers was “very calm and he said he’s had enough and that Jews are killing our children and the Jews had to die.” Another officer, David Blahut, said Bowers told him “these people are committing genocide on my people and I want to kill Jews.”
Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Bowers had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”
Colville, who was nominated to the court by President Donald Trump more than three years ago, previously spent nearly two decades as a county judge in Pittsburgh.
The three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the shootings. The Tree of Life Congregation also is working with partners on plans to renovate and rebuild on its synagogue, which still stands, by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.
The death penalty trial is proceeding three years after 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. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold death sentences that have been issued and, in some cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.