The Pittsburgh synagogue gunman should be eligible for the death penalty, prosecutor argues
Jul 12, 2023, 10:53 AM
(Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The gunman who committed the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history should be deemed eligible for the death penalty because he intentionally planned the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack 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.
Bowers’ defense lawyers are scheduled to make their own closing arguments Wednesday afternoon.
At issue is whether Bowers is eligible for the death penalty — a preliminary stage in the weekslong sentencing process. If it determines he 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.
Bowers’ own defense team has conceded one aggravating factor: that several of the victims were vulnerable due to age or mental disability.
But they also argued that his 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.
Song denounced those claims, noting 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.
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.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.