Pittsburgh synagogue trial: Expert says antisemitism spurred shooter, not delusions

Forensic psychiatrist rejects defense argument that gunman Robert Powers be spared death penalty due to mental illness, says his motives rooted in white supremacy

This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)
This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)

PITTSBURGH (JTA) — The gunman who murdered 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue did not suffer from delusions but was spurred by white supremacist radicalization, a storied forensic psychiatrist testified for the prosecution.

Park Dietz, who has for decades provided expert testimony in some of the highest profile insanity defense cases, was the final witness in the first part of the death penalty phase in the federal trial of Robert Bowers, who committed the deadliest attack on American Jews in history on October 27, 2018.

Dietz, a witness for the prosecution, countered defense testimony that Bowers suffered from schizophrenia and delusions. Bowers got his ideas about Jews not from his twisted imagination but from the antisemitic writings online that radicalized him.

“The difference” between himself and experts brought forward by the defense is “whether we regard the defendant’s beliefs as delusions on the one hand or subcultural beliefs on the other,” Dietz said Monday on his second day of testimony. His testimony began last Thursday.

The defense experts, Dietz said Monday, “simply mistook every ordinary widespread white separatist beliefs as delusions because they were not familiar with them.”

Dietz placed Bowers’ crime in the context of decades of American right-wing extremism. “When you see this promoted for 20 years or 40 years promoted in books and online forums it is clear they are subcultural beliefs,” said Dietz, who in May examined Bowers for 15 hours.

Screen capture from video of forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, February 2023. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Dietz, who has conducted substantial research on far-right extremism, said that Bowers’ thinking could be traced to a number of late 20th-century writings that have underpinned white supremacist ideology, including the “White Genocide Manifesto” authored in 1985 by David Lane — the leader of The Order who killed Jewish radio host Alan Berg.

“There were sources for all of this,” he said. “The ‘White Genocide Manifesto’ was the principal one from which much of this flows.” He also cited the “Great Replacement” theory which posits that Jews are organizing mass immigrations of immigrants of color into western nations to replace whites.

Replacement theory, which has gained significant traction in right-wing media and politics in recent years, has inspired multiple antisemitic and extremist attacks, including the 2019 attack on a New Zealand mosque that killed 51 and the 2019 massacre at a Texas Walmart that targeted Hispanic immigrants.

Dietz is the final witness in the first part of the death penalty phase, which mostly has focused on whether Bowers’ intent meets the requirement for the death penalty. If the jury determines that the crimes meet that threshold, the second phase will consider the defense’s arguments that mitigating factors in Bowers’ life make him ineligible for the death penalty. The prosecution would be expected to present victim impact statements in that phase.

The federal jury of five men and seven women found Bowers guilty of all 63 government charges on June 16, including 22 capital charges — two for each of the 11 slain at the Pittsburgh synagogue complex known as Tree of Life.

The defense has sought since the launch of the death penalty phase on June 26 to show that Bowers’ beliefs about Jews were delusions caused by schizophrenia and epilepsy.

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

Dietz, under cross examination by defense lawyer Michael Burt, was immovable: Bowers did not have an original thought that would qualify as a delusion. “The entire area of disagreement in this case, is does he have delusions or not,” he said. “That’s the critical fulcrum in this case.”

Bowers did not have delusions, Dietz said. “I’m talking about his white supremacist and antisemitic beliefs — those are all fixed,” he said.

Bowers, Dietz said, remained unrepentant. His regrets included not bringing more ammunition into the building, calculating that he would head to another location after committing the massacre at Tree of Life. The second intended target is believed to be the Jewish Family and Community Services office, which was nearby.

Another regret, Bowers told Dietz, was that “there wasn’t dozens of dozens more in there” when he arrived at the synagogue that Saturday morning.

Bowers was proud nonetheless of the number of Jews he did kill, Dietz said. “They can kill me” with the death penalty, Dietz quoted Bowers as saying, “if they want but the score will still be 11-1. That’s not winning the war but I won that battle.”

Bowers was proud that his handling of the ammunition was “flawless” and said he remained focused throughout the shooting. He told Dietz one moment of near sympathy for his victims, a man who he shot in the head and who spoke as he lived on for a second or so.

“I never heard a single person say a word except for one man who was slumped over and said ‘I think I’ve been seriously injured,’” Dietz quoted Bowers as saying of that victim, who was not identified. “I almost felt sorry for him.”

Bowers, clad in a gray sweater and a collared shirt, did not look at Dietz, preoccupying himself as he has until now with writing notes.

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)

Bowers targeted Tree of Life because one of three congregations in it, Dor Hadash, partnered with HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group, in sponsoring refugee families. Dietz testified that Bowers at first intended to target only Dor Hadash but after hearing newscasters whom he believed to be Jewish express sympathy for immigrants, he decided “a Jew is a Jew.”

Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist at UCLA’s medical school, has evaluated defendants including John Hinckley, who attempted to kill then-US president Ronald Reagan; mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, among many others. He also is listed on the Internet Movie Database as a consultant on hundreds of episodes of “Law and Order” and its franchises.

Burt, in his cross examination, appeared to anticipate arguments the defense will bring should the trial continue to the second death penalty phase. He asked Dietz to assess Bowers’ likelihood of suffering mental illness because of trauma. Dietz agreed with Burt that Bowers had suffered some of the requisite traumas, including losing his father to suicide and being raised by an alcoholic and neglectful mother.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial. Parts of the story are based on reporting by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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