Death penalty trial to begin of man accused of killing 11 at Pittsburgh synagogue

Jury selection to start as prosecutors seek harshest penalty for truck driver Robert G. Bowers over the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history

A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 19, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 19, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jury selection will begin Monday in the federal death penalty trial of a truck driver accused of shooting to death 11 Jewish worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history.

Robert G. Bowers, who is from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 counts in the October 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue while members of three Jewish congregations were holding Sabbath activities in the building. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

If convicted, Bowers, 50, could get the death sentence. He offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down. His lawyers also recently said he has schizophrenia and structural and functional brain impairments.

During the trial, prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements he 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.

FILE – This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers. Bowers is charged with killing 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)

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 anti-Semitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”

The victims of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, October 27, 2018. (Facebook/Google Maps/JTA Collage)

US District Judge Robert Colville, who was nominated to the court by then-US president Donald Trump more than three years ago, will preside over the trial. He 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.

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