Despite opposition from synagogues, US seeks death penalty for Pittsburgh killer
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Despite opposition from synagogues, US seeks death penalty for Pittsburgh killer

US Attorney’s Office cites planning of attack by Robert Bowers, religious hostility and vulnerability of 11 victims at Tree of Life sanctuary last year

Driver's license photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers (Pennsylvania DOT)
Driver's license photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers (Pennsylvania DOT)

A man charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue should face the death penalty if convicted, federal prosecutors said in a court filing Monday, despite public opposition to the punishment from two of the three congregations that shared the Tree of Life synagogue.

The US attorney’s office in Pittsburgh filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against 46-year-old Robert Bowers in last year’s attack.

The government filing said justification for a death sentence included allegations of substantial planning and premeditation, the vulnerability and number of victims, and a motivation of religious hostility.

It also listed the injury, harm and loss caused to the victims and the choice of the Tree of Life synagogue as the site of the attack.

The notice accused Bowers of targeting the worshipers “in order to maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national and international Jewish communities.”

People watch as a menorah is lighted outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah, December 2, 2018 in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshiped Saturday, October 27, 2018 at the temple. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Earlier this month, leaders of two of the three congregations that share the Tree of Life synagogue urged Attorney General William Barr not to seek the death penalty for Bowers.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, whose New Light Congregation in Pittsburgh lost three worshipers in the attack, wrote to Barr “as a victim of the attack,” reminding him that “both our religious traditions, yours Catholic and mine Jewish, vigorously oppose the death penalty.”

Although the Bible does condemn those who commit certain sins to death, he continued, the Talmud says that a court that puts a man to death once every 70 years is called a “bloodthirsty court.”

“I would like the Pittsburgh killer to be incarcerated for the rest of his life without parole. He should meditate on whether taking action on some white separatist fantasy against the Jewish people was really worth it,” Perlman said. “Let him live with it forever. I am mainly interested in not letting this thug cause my community any further pain.”

He added that his congregants were still tending their wounds and did not wish to have them opened anew.

Worshipers listen to Rabbi Chuck Diamond, former Rabbi of the Tree of Life Congregation, as he conducts a Shabbat prayer vigil Saturday morning in the in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue on November 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ( Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

The president of Congregation Dor Hadash, which used the synagogue and lost one member in the attack, also argued against the death penalty in a letter to the Justice Department.

Donna Coufal wrote on behalf of Dor Hadash’s board and members that the justice department should accept a plea deal that would forgo a trial and put Bowers in prison for life.

“We believe that the elimination of a trial and publicity for the shooter serves the interest of our congregation, as well as the general public,” Coufal wrote on August 9, according to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.

“A plea bargain for life without parole will prevent this individual getting the attention and publicity that would inevitably come with a trial.”

The third congregation that used the synagogue, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, declined to comment on the death penalty, the report said.

Law enforcement run with a person on a stretcher at the scene where multiple people were shot, October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Bowers allegedly yelled “I want to kill all Jews” during the attack. His indictment noted that he made statements against the Jewish immigration advocacy agency HIAS and Jews on the website gab.com.

Bowers has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial. His lawyers did not return messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for US Attorney Scott Brady declined to discuss the filing.

Prosecutors wrote that the death penalty will be justified if Bowers is convicted of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death or of using a gun to commit a crime of violence.

Bowers is accused of using an AR-15 rifle and other weapons to target worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue during Saturday morning services in October. Seven people were also wounded, including five police officers.

Police have said he expressed hatred of Jews during and after what was the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Shortly after the shootings, before Bowers was publicly identified as the suspect, US President Donald Trump said the perpetrator should “suffer the ultimate price.”

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

“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” Trump told reporters in October. “Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church. We had so many incidents with churches. They should really suffer the ultimate price.”

Two weeks ago, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to a 120-day extension in the case.

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