Trying to save his life, Pittsburgh synagogue gunman’s defense argues mental illness

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PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (AP) — The gunman convicted in the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history had psychotic, delusional, and paranoid symptoms that made him unable to “read the world appropriately” or make proper decisions, his lawyer said Monday, launching an effort to persuade jurors to spare his life.

Robert Bowers had a psychotic condition going back to childhood, as well as serious brain defects and a history of suicide attempts, defense lawyer Michael Burt said on the opening day of the penalty phase of Bowers’ federal trial. Bowers was convicted this month in the 2018 killings of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The defense argues that Bowers was unable to form the requisite level of intent to allow the jury to impose a death sentence. Medical tests found Bowers’ brain to be “structurally deficient,” with symptoms of epilepsy and schizophrenia, Burt said.

Prosecutor Troy Rivetti, in his opening statement Monday, said the government was prepared to rebut any mental-health defense.

Bowers clearly formed the intent to kill everyone he could find in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, Rivetti said. He called the magnitude of Bowers’ crimes staggering.

“He came to kill,” the prosecutor said. “The defendant entered the Tree of Life synagogue, a sacred place to gather and pray, and he murdered 11 innocent worshipers.”

Bowers, flipping through papers, gave little indication that he was paying attention to the lawyers’ statements. He has shown little reaction throughout the trial.

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)

The sentencing portion of Bowers’ trial comes as the death penalty has become a more prominent topic in the 2024 presidential race. The federal death penalty was not a high-profile issue until former US president Donald Trump’s administration resumed executions in 2020, after a 17-year hiatus. With 13 inmates put to death in his last months in office, Trump oversaw more federal executions than any president in more than 120 years.

US President Joe Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has paused executions to review policies and procedures. But federal prosecutors continue to work to uphold already-issued death sentences and to pursue the death penalty for crimes that are eligible, as in Bowers’ case.

Bowers, 50, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, killed 11 members of three congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life — who had gathered for Sabbath services in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. He also wounded two worshipers and five police officers.

The jury convicted Bowers on June 16, after five hours of deliberations, on all of the 63 counts he faced. The same jurors now must decide whether Bowers is eligible for the death penalty.

Prosecutors first have to show proof of intent and at least one aggravating factor that made the killings more heinous.

Rivetti told the jury Monday that many of Bowers’ victims were frail and elderly. He displayed a photo of a cane left on a pew by Bernice Simon, who was shot and killed as she attempted to tend to her mortally wounded husband, both in their 80s.

Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal both had intellectual disabilities, could not read, and “sometimes needed help tying their shoes,” Rivetti said. “And this defendant shot and killed them in their synagogue.”

This photo of the Pervin Chapel in the Tree of Life synagogue building in Pittsburgh was entered May 31, 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)

The prosecutor also argued there was evidence of intent at every step of the attack.

Bowers raged against Jews online, fixating on a Jewish refugee-aid organization that he accused of bringing in “invaders.” He then drove half an hour from his apartment to the synagogue, his car loaded with weapons and ammunition, and made “decision after decision” to pull the trigger, Rivetti said.

From the beginning, the punishment that Bowers will receive — a death sentence or life in prison without parole — has been the only question in the case. His own attorneys admitted he carried out the attack and offered only a token defense at trial, and have long signaled that their focus would be on saving his life.

Before the trial, Bowers’ attorneys offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence, which prosecutors rejected. Most of the victims’ relatives support seeking the death penalty.

The guilty verdict followed three weeks of wrenching survivor testimony and often graphic evidence, including victims’ 911 calls and photographs of the carnage. Bowers’ lead defense attorney, Judy Clarke, called no witnesses. She suggested Bowers was driven not by religious hatred, but a deluded belief that by killing Jews, he was saving children from the genocide he believed was being perpetrated by immigrants aided by Jews.

The sentencing phase of the trial was expected to last four to five weeks.

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)

Assuming it finds Bowers eligible for the death sentence, the jury will then hear victim impact statements demonstrating the trauma suffered by survivors and the victims’ loved ones, as well as mitigating factors that might prompt a more lenient sentence, which may include pleas from Bowers’ relatives.

To put him on death row, jurors will have to agree unanimously that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones.

Clarke has represented other killers in high-profile capital cases, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is appealing his death sentence, and 1996 Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and the late Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who both received life sentences.

“Mitigating evidence — that’s her specialty,” University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said of Clarke. “You’ll hear anything that’s possible” to spare Bowers’ life.

Local Jewish leaders expect to hear a sympathetic portrait of the killer and are worried it will be traumatic.

“So we’re going to be learning what kind of horrible human being he really is,” New Light Congregation co-president Stephen Cohen said after the verdict.

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