Jury starts debating death penalty for Pittsburgh gunman, with mental health at fore

Prosecutor argues Robert Bowers’s meticulous plans for the Tree of Life synagogue attack prove he knew what he was doing, but defense claims antisemitic delusions drove massacre

The signage on the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood is framed in spring foliage on April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The signage on the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood is framed in spring foliage on April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The gunman who committed the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history should be deemed eligible for the death penalty because he intentionally planned the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and preyed on vulnerable victims as they were beginning Sabbath worship, a prosecutor urged jurors on Wednesday.

“On Oct. 27, 2018, this defendant violated the safe, holy sanctuary that was the Tree of Life synagogue. He turned it into a killing ground,” prosecutor Soo Song told jurors in the sentencing phase for Robert Bowers, who was convicted last month in the attack that claimed 11 lives.

But Bowers’ defense lawyer, Michael Burt, cited expert witnesses to bolster the claim that a “delusional belief system took over his thinking,” which left him unable to do anything but “following the dictates” of those delusional thoughts.

Jurors deliberated for about an hour Wednesday afternoon and will resume Thursday morning. They will decide whether Bowers is eligible for the death penalty — a preliminary stage in the sentencing process, which is in its third week.

If it determines Bowers is eligible, the jury would then hear evidence in the coming weeks before deciding whether to impose the death penalty. If it determines he is not eligible, Bowers will receive a life sentence without parole, Judge Robert Colville said during jury instruction Wednesday morning.

To reach the threshold of eligibility, the jury must conclude Bowers formed the intent to kill and that there was at least one aggravating factor that made the crime especially heinous.

Burt on Wednesday conceded some aggravating factors — that Bowers created a grave risk of death in carrying out the attack and that several of the victims were vulnerable due to age or mental disability.

Robert Bowers, third from left, sits with his lawyers and takes notes during jury selection for trial in his potential death penalty case on April 24, 2023, in US federal court in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Dave Klug)

But he also argued that Bowers’ ability to form intent was impaired by schizophrenia, epilepsy and a delusional belief that he could stop a genocide of white people by killing Jews who help immigrants.

Even years after the attack, Bowers was “still spewing this delusional content” to mental health analysts and anyone else who would listen, Burt said. Even in custody, facing capital murder charges, “he can’t restrain himself about these delusions he has about the country being invaded, that he’s a soldier at war.”

In this combo image made from photos provided by the US District Court Western District of Pennsylvania are the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On the top row, from left: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, and David Rosenthal; bottom row, from left, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger. (United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania via AP)

Song denounced the idea that Bowers lacked control of his actions. She noted that Bowers told one of the defense’s own expert medical witnesses that he meticulously planned the attack, considered other potential Jewish targets, and “regrets that he didn’t kill dozens more.” Song said Bowers described himself as calm and focused as he shot to kill.

Even if Bowers had schizophrenia or epilepsy, “that would not mean the defendant was incapable of forming the intent to kill,” Song said.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

US Attorney Eric Olshan added that Bowers wasn’t controlled by delusions.

“He just believes things that are repugnant,” Olshan said.

Each side spent considerable time seeking to undercut the credibility of the other’s expert witnesses.

Bowers, 50, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, was convicted last month on 63 criminal counts. These include 11 counts each of obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death and use of a firearm to commit murder — charges that carry a potential death penalty.

His attorneys offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors refused, opting instead to take the case to trial and pursue the death penalty. Most of the victims’ families supported that decision.

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