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US jury hands death penalty to gunman for killing 11 at Pittsburgh synagogue

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The gunman who stormed a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and killed 11 worshippers will be sentenced to death for perpetrating the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history.

Robert Bowers spewed hatred of Jews and espoused white supremacist beliefs online before methodically planning and carrying out the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study. Bowers, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, also wounded two worshipers and five responding police officers.

The same federal jury that convicted the 50-year-old Bowers on 63 criminal counts recommended Wednesday that he be put to death for an attack whose impacts continue to reverberate nearly five years later. A judge will formally impose the sentence later.

The verdict came after a lengthy trial in which jurors heard in chilling detail how Bowers reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot, and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition. In the sentencing phase, grieving family members told the jury about the lives that Bowers took — a 97-year-old woman and intellectually disabled brothers among them — and the unrelenting pain of their loss. Survivors testified about their own lasting pain, both physical and emotional.

Through it all, Bowers showed little reaction to the proceeding that would decide his fate — typically looking down at papers or screens at the defense table. He even told a psychiatrist that he thought the trial was helping to spread his antisemitic message.

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It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, whose 2020 campaign included a pledge to end capital punishment. Biden’s Justice Department has placed a moratorium on federal executions and has declined to authorize the death penalty in hundreds of new cases where it could apply. But federal prosecutors said death was the appropriate punishment for Bowers, citing the vulnerability of his mainly elderly victims and his hate-based targeting of a religious community. Most victims’ families said Bowers should die for his crimes.

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)

Bowers’ lawyers never contested his guilt, focusing their efforts on trying to save his life. They presented evidence of a horrific childhood marked by trauma and neglect. They also claimed Bowers had severe, untreated mental illness, saying he killed out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to cause a genocide of white people. The defense argued that schizophrenia and brain abnormalities made Bowers more susceptible to being influenced by the extremist content he found online.

The prosecution denied mental illness had anything to do with it, saying Bowers knew exactly what he was doing when he violated the sanctity of a house of worship by opening fire on terrified congregants with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, shooting everyone he could find.

Bowers blasted his way into Tree of Life on October 27, 2018, and killed members of the Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations, which shared the synagogue building.

The victims were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.

This photo of bullet damaged doors in the Tree of Life synagogue building in Pittsburgh was entered June 1, 2023, as a court exhibit by prosecutors in the federal trial of Robert Bowers. (US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania via AP)

Bowers, who traded gunfire with responding officers and was shot three times, told police at the scene that “all these Jews need to die,” according to testimony. Ahead of the attack, he posted, liked or shared a stream of virulently antisemitic content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right. He has expressed no remorse for the killings, telling mental health experts he saw himself as a soldier in a race war, took pride in the attack and wished he had shot more people.

In emotional testimony, the victims’ family members described what Bowers took from them. “My world has fallen apart,” Sharyn Stein, Dan Stein’s widow, told the jury.

Survivors and other affected by the attack will have another opportunity to address the court — and Bowers — when he is formally sentenced by the judge.

The synagogue has been closed since the shootings. The Tree of Life congregation is working on an overhauled synagogue complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.