Robert Bowers, the gunman who killed 11 worshippers and wounded six others at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 in the deadliest-ever attack on Jewish people in the United States, was unanimously sentenced to death by a federal jury on Wednesday.
It’s the first federal death penalty imposed under the Biden administration.
The decision to sentence the gunman to death had to be unanimous. Otherwise, he would have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Jurors spent just over 10 hours deliberating over the past two days. They asked two questions of the court: one to examine the guns used in the shooting, and another to ask for a copy of documents in evidence about the gunman’s family history.
Bowers, 50, was convicted on June 16 of all 63 charges against him for the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018. Twenty-two of those counts were capital offenses. The jury further found he was eligible for the death penalty on July 13, moving the trial to a third and final sentencing stage.
The trial’s final phase focused on aggravating and mitigating factors that potentially apply to Bowers. Prosecutors argued Bowers carried out the killings due to his hatred toward Jewish people and highlighted testimony from victims’ family members talking about their loved ones as well as Bowers’ lack of remorse about his actions.
“He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in US history, and he is proud of it,” US Attorney Eric Olshan said in closing arguments Monday.
“This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law – the death penalty,” he said.
Bowers’ defense emphasized his difficult childhood and mental health issues, including what they say is a delusional belief system and diagnoses of schizophrenia and epilepsy.
“You’ve held Rob Bowers accountable. You’ve convicted him of 63 counts. You’ve found him eligible for jury sentencing. Now we ask you to choose life and not death,” defense attorney Judy Clarke said Monday.
The jury unanimously found proven all five of the prosecution’s aggravating factors put forth in this phase of the trial. The defense put forth 115 mitigating factors, and while the jury agreed with some of the more factual elements, they rejected some of the defense’s key arguments.
For example, none of the jurors found that he “suffers from delusions,” that he “is a person with schizophrenia” or that he “committed the offense under mental or emotional disturbance.” Further, none of the jurors agreed that he was a “model pretrial inmate” or that he “behaved respectfully in court.”
The formal sentencing is set to take place Thursday.
Robert Bowers takes notes in court on Monday.
The attack began on the morning of October 27, 2018, with Bowers bursting into the synagogue and shooting at people with an AR-15-style rifle. At the time, the synagogue was hosting three congregations – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light – for weekly Shabbat services.
Those killed include a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.
Of the six wounded survivors, four were police officers who responded to the scene. Eight people who were inside the building escaped unharmed.
In court, those who survived the shooting testified about hiding in closets and listening to the final words of their friends and loved ones. Law enforcement officers also testified that they were fired upon when responding to the attack before Bowers ultimately ran out of ammo and surrendered.
The prosecution even entered into evidence a prayer book with a bullet hole, a symbol of the day’s destruction.
“It’s a witness to the horror of the day,” Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”
Prior to the attack, Bowers spent years posting hateful comments about immigrants and Jewish people on Gab, a small social media platform then used by far-right extremists. He criticized migrants as “invaders” and repeatedly disparaged the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit organization providing support to refugees that had recently held an event with the Dor Hadash congregation.
Bowers further expressed his hatred for immigrants and Jews as he was being arrested and continued to defend his antisemitic beliefs in jailhouse evaluations earlier this year, witnesses testified in the trial.
This is the second federal death penalty case to be prosecuted under the administration of President Joe Biden, who had criticized the death penalty on the campaign trail. In the first such case, concerning a terrorist who drove a U-Haul truck into cyclists and pedestrians on a New York City bike path, the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision, leading to a sentence of life without parole. Both cases were holdovers from the Trump administration.
At the same time, the Biden administration has put a moratorium on federal executions.