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Synagogue gunman had traumatic childhood and couldn’t function as an adult, defense expert testifies

Jul 20, 2023, 12:14 PM

This photo taken with a drone shows the Tree of Life Synagogue, left, in the Squirrel Hill neighbor...

This photo taken with a drone shows the Tree of Life Synagogue, left, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Thursday, July 13, 2023, the day a federal jury announced they had found Robert Bowers, who in 2018 killed 11 people at the synagogue, eligible for the death penalty. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The perpetrator of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has led a deeply unstable life dominated by serious mental illness and family dysfunction, and has attempted to take his own life several times, a clinical psychologist testified Thursday.

“This was a person who from the beginning had a childhood that was just laden with trauma, neglect and abuse from before he was born,” Katherine Porterfield testified for the defense during the sentencing phase of Robert Bowers’ trial.

Bowers, 50, of suburban Baldwin, killed 11 worshippers from three congregations and wounded other worshippers and police officers on Oct. 27, 2018, when he opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He was the death penalty in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Porterfield’s second day of testimony focused on Bowers’ teen and adult years. He showed some improvement around age 13 after an extended hospitalization in a juvenile mental health unit, but he returned to a highly unstable home and self-threatening behavior. He threatened or attempted suicide multiple times in his teens, including by setting himself on fire, Porterfield said.

His mother had difficulty holding down jobs and often changed housing and romantic partners, though she did settle into an enduring marriage with a man she met on a call-in dating show. Bowers, despite scoring high on intelligence testing, failed to complete high school but later received a General Education Development credential, Porterfield said.

As an adult, Bowers again was hospitalized after threatening to shoot himself to death. He was fired from the only long-term job he could maintain, as a truck driver for a local bakery, for stealing money. Family members recognized he was barely functioning as an adult and tried to help him find jobs and housing, but he had no effective intervention to address mental illness, Porterfield said.

“He doesn’t have friends. He has a hard time leaving his house,” Porterfield said. “His job doesn’t match his intelligence. We just see a person who cannot function.”

Around 2016, he got an apartment. He attended Bible study and was baptized in December 2016, but he soon dropped out of church, Porterfield said.

In an ominous foreshadowing of the conspiratorial thinking behind the attack, Bowers said decades ago that he kept a gun in case the United Nations “blue hats” came, according to a co-worker Porterfield interviewed. Bowers, his own attorneys acknowledge, targeted the synagogue in 2018 out of a belief that Jews were helping to bring immigrants and cause a purported genocide of the white race.

Jurors who last week determined that Bowers is eligible for the death penalty are now hearing arguments on whether aggravating factors that make the crime especially heinous, such as the vulnerability of elderly and disabled victims, outweigh mitigating factors that could be seen as diminishing Bowers’ culpability.

In testimony this week, wounded survivors of the synagogue attack and family members of those killed testified to the devastating effects of the attack on their bodies, emotions and families.

Under cross-examination Thursday, Porterfield conceded that most people who have terrible childhoods do not harm others, and that being traumatized does not justify traumatizing others.

Seeking to discredit Porterfield’s testimony, prosecutor Nicole Vasquez Schmitt said she had relied heavily on interviews with Bowers’ mother, despite her cognitive problems. Porterfield replied that the mother offered important context to supplement medical documentation.

Vasquez Schmitt also noted that Bowers’ father left the family before the boy was old enough to remember him, and that there was no indication that the son knew about the rape charge that preceded his father’s suicide.

Porterfield reiterated testimony from Wednesday about Bowers’ highly destabilized youth. Bowers’ father choked and threw his mother downstairs when she was pregnant with him. His father left the family and killed himself while facing a rape charge.

Bowers’ mother enrolled the boy in a Christian elementary school, where he showed some academic progress, but where a teacher cautioned that he appeared emotionally troubled. His mother did not follow up to get him consistent care, Porterfield said.

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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.

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Synagogue gunman had traumatic childhood and couldn’t function as an adult, defense expert testifies