By Ron Kampeas
PITTSBURGH (JTA) — The gunman who committed the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history is guilty of all charges he faced, according to the verdict delivered by a federal jury on Friday morning (June 16).
Robert Bowers, who killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, was charged on 63 counts in total. Those include 22 capital charges — two for each of his victims: 11 charges of the federal crime of “obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death,” and 11 charges of the federal crime of “willfully causing bodily injury because of actual or perceived religion resulting in death,” which is a hate crime.
The sentencing phase of the trial is set to begin June 26, during which the jury of seven women and five men will consider whether to give the defendant the death penalty. Defense lawyers told the court they were prepared to argue a mental health defense, and would bring witnesses to the stand.
The verdict is a milestone in one of the most significant court proceedings in American Jewish history. It provides a a determination of legal accountability in a tragedy that has reshaped American Jews’ sense of security in Pittsburgh and beyond in the nearly five years since it occurred.
The trial opened with jury selection in April, and lawyers delivered their opening statements on May 30, beginning 11 days of harrowing testimony from survivors of the shooting and first responders who described the attack and its aftermath.
On Friday, families of the victims and survivors packed the courtroom and an overflow room where they were able to monitor the proceedings over video. Staff from the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a counseling service housed at the local Jewish Community Center, were on hand to assist them.
The victims of the attack were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. They worshipped at three congregations housed in the building at the time: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light.
Before the jury entered the courtroom, the defendant strode in, wearing a dark blue sweater over a collared blue shirt and looking around the room. Once the jury was seated, he rose to face them for a moment, whispered to one of his lawyers, Elisa Long, and then sat down. He appeared to be taking notes throughout the reading of the verdict.
Judge Robert Colville asked those in attendance not to react during the verdict, and they complied. Maggie Feinstein, the director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, gave out blue stress balls to family members. Meg Gottfried, the widow of Richard Gottfried, took a deep breath when Bowers was pronounced guilty of the crime of murdering her husband. Ellen Leger, whose husband, Daniel, was shot and wounded, put her arm around him after the verdict was read.
During the trial, the trauma of the shooting was evident when survivors spoke in the courtroom. Andrea Wedner, one of two worshippers who were shot and survived, asked not to be on the stand during the playback of her 911 call. Leger, the other shooting victim who survived, and the Tree of Life rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, became emotional as each recounted reciting the Shema, the Torah verse and central Jewish prayer that Jews have traditionally recited at times of mortal peril.
The defense team never contested that their client committed the shooting, electing to call no witnesses and present no evidence at the trial. Their sole argument, articulated by Elisa Long in her brief closing statement on Thursday, was to rebut the capital charge that Bowers was guilty of “obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death”. The defense attorneys, headed by a prominent death row lawyer, Judy Clarke, are expected to argue that their client suffered from epilepsy, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in their effort to keep him from being sentenced to death.
Long said Bowers was under the delusion that Jews were facilitating the entry of immigrants into the United States to commit genocide, and that his goal was to prevent them from doing so, not to keep Jews from worshipping. But she did not contest the hate crime charge. There is no question, she said, that “his statements that day reflected animosity and hatred toward Jews.”
Prosecutors anticipated that the defense would argue that the gunman did not intent to obstruct worship. Government attorneys concluded each survivors’ testimony with some form of the same question: “Did the defendant prevent you from praying?”
At times, the testimony doubled as a kind of crash course on American Jewish worship, with witnesses explaining the differences between Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism as well as the use of ritual objects, like a prayer shawl or ritual fringes.
Prosecutors used visuals to make the point that the attack interrupted an exercise of religion: prayer books were stained with blood, a kippah was split into two by gunfire. Bernice Simon used a prayer shawl to stanch the wound that killed her husband, Sylvan, before she was killed.
Another theme pervading the proceedings was the political polarization that has beset the United States in recent years. Ahead of the shooting, the gunman posted hateful messages and signaled his intent to commit the attack on Gab, a social media site that is a redoubt of far-right extremists. The site’s founder, Andrew Torba, testified in the trial, as did Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group. The gunman chose to attack the Tree of Life building because Dor Hadash partnered with HIAS on its National Refugee Shabbat the previous week.
The non-death penalty charges the defendant faced are related to the injuries suffered by Wedner and Leger as well as police personnel who engaged with Bowers when they raided the synagogue, in addition to gun charges. The shooter was an avid collector of guns.