PITTSBURGH — Lawyers for the man accused of shooting to death 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year said in a filing Tuesday that the case would be over if federal prosecutors had accepted his offer to plead guilty in return for life-without-parole, as survivors of the deadly shooting said they sought closure more than revenge.
Lawyers for Tree of Life shooting defendant Robert Bowers made the statement in a response to prosecutors’ proposal to start trial in mid-September 2020.
Federal prosecutors rejected the plea offer in favor of pursuing a death penalty, but drew criticism from some of the synagogue congregants who said accepting the plea offer would bring speedy closure and avoid the trauma of going through a lengthy trial.
“Against the hazards of a September-October 2020 trial, the government invokes the rights of crimes victims to be free from unreasonable delay,” Bowers’ lawyers said. “The court’s view of this invocation of rights should be informed by the fact that this case would already be over — and interests in a speedy resolution vindicated — had the government accepted the defendant’s offer to plead guilty as charged and be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.”
The US attorney’s office in Pittsburgh notified the court in August it was pursuing the death penalty against Bowers, 47, for what was the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.
Police said Bowers expressed hatred of Jews during and after the October 2018 rampage, in which 11 members of three congregations that meet at the Tree of Life synagogue were killed.
Members of two congregations at the Tree of Life Synagogue told the KDKA radio station Tuesday that going to trial seeking a death penalty would only drag out proceedings for years.
Dor Hadash and New Light members say they also want to avoid reliving the horrors of the shooting while giving testimony.
New Light Congregation co-president Stephen Cohen wrote a letter to the Attorney’s Office in August urging prosecutors to consider the benefits of avoiding trial.
“The witnesses don’t have to testify,” he told KDKA. “There is no trauma attached to being in court and having to relive the events of that day.”
“By going for the death penalty, it could be 10 years or more before we reach closure,” Cohen said. “That’s just cruel.”
Judah Samet, who was on his way to the synagogue on the morning of the shooting attack, said the death penalty was too easy on the gunman.
“I don’t want to kill because, to me, it would be a gift to him,” Samet said, adding he wants the killer to spend his life in prison.
Arlene Wolk, a member of the congregation, said in an email to The Times of Israel that “Bowers should be brought to trial. It’s clear that he killed eleven people worshipping that day on all three floors of the building. I think that the death penalty may be justified in this case. I hope that the trial will have limited media coverage and will be as quick as possible.”
A spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh federal prosecutors declined comment. Messages were left seeking comment from Bowers’ lawyers.
The Bowers team’s filing said trial in about a year would run into major Jewish holidays, as well as the home stretch of the presidential election.
The defense lawyers said they need time to prepare for trial, including questions about where it should be held.
Bowers’ attorneys told a judge in May that he wanted to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.