The bloodiest antisemitic attack in American history will result in the execution of the gunman who invaded a synagogue in the center of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population and slaughtered 11 worshippers.
Before meticulously plotting and carrying out the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study, Robert Bowers spread anti-Semitic rhetoric and white supremacist viewpoints online.
Five responding police officers and two worshipers were also hurt by Bowers, a truck driver from Baldwin in the suburbs.
The same federal jury that found 50-year-old Robert Bowers guilty on 63 felony counts on Wednesday recommended that he be executed for a shooting whose repercussions are still being felt nearly five years later. An official judge’s order will be issued.
After a protracted trial, the jury reached its decision after hearing disturbing details about how Bowers reloaded at least twice, walked over the bloody remains of his victims to hunt for further targets, and only surrendered after he ran out of ammunition.
Grieving family members spoke to the jury during the sentencing phase about the lives that Bowers took, including a 97-year-old grandmother and two brothers who had intellectual disabilities, as well as the excruciating sorrow of their loss.
Survivors described their own ongoing physical and emotional suffering in court. Bowers remained largely unresponsive to the proceedings that would determine his fate, frequently glancing down at documents or screens at the defense table.
He even admitted to his psychiatrist that he believed the study was beneficial.
It was the first federal death sentence handed out while Joe Biden served as president; his 2020 campaign platform includes a call to abolish the death penalty.
The Justice Department under Biden has suspended all federal executions and refused to approve the death penalty in hundreds of new cases when it could have been appropriate.
Federal prosecutors, however, argued that Bowers should be executed due to his hate-motivated targeting of a religious community and the fragility of his mostly elderly victims.
Most of the victims’ families felt that Bowers should be executed for his crimes.
The goal of Bowers’ attorneys was to preserve his life; they never disputed his guilt. They provided proof of a terrible upbringing characterized by trauma and neglect.
They also asserted that Bowers suffered from significant, untreated mental illness and that he killed because of a delusion that Jews were complicit in the genocide of white people.
The defense contended that Bowers was more likely to be persuaded by the extremist content he found online because of his schizophrenia and neurological abnormalities.
According to the prosecution, Bowers understood exactly what he was doing when he breached the sanctity of a place of worship by opening fire on scared worshippers with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, shooting everybody he could find.
The prosecution denied that mental illness had anything to do with it.
On October 27, 2018, Bowers opened fire inside Tree of Life, killing people who belonged to the Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life congregations that shared the synagogue. Joyce Fienberg, age 75; Richard Gottfried, age 65; Rose Mallinger, age 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, age 66; brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal, ages 54 and 59; Bernice Simon, age 84; and her husband, Sylvan Simon, age 86; Dan Stein, age 71; Melvin Wax, age 87; and Irving Younger, age 69, were also victims.