A gunman who entered a Pittsburgh synagogue nearly five years ago and killed 11 people in the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history should be sentenced to death, a jury said on Wednesday.
Robert Bowers, a truck driver, spewed hatred of Jews and espoused white supremacist beliefs online before methodically planning and carrying out the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study.
Bowers, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, P.A., was armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons. He also wounded two worshippers and five responding police officers.
The congregants killed in the attack ranged in age from 54 to 97 and were from the Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations, which all shared the synagogue building. They were: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.
In closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors said the 50-year-old Bowers was clearly motivated by religious hatred and after the attack expressed pride in the killings. Before the attacks, he spread vitriol over immigrants and antisemitic content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right.
Rare federal death penalty sentence
Bowers’s lawyers asked jurors to spare his life, asserting that he acted out of a delusional belief that Jewish people were helping to bring about a genocide of white people. They said he has severe mental illness and endured a difficult childhood.
The verdict came after a lengthy trial in which jurors heard in chilling detail how Bowers reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition.
In the sentencing phase, grieving family members told the jury about the lives that Bowers took — a 97-year-old woman and intellectually disabled brothers among them — and the unrelenting pain of their loss. Survivors testified about their own lasting pain, both physical and emotional.
It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, whose 2020 campaign included a pledge to end capital punishment.
His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold death sentences that have been issued and, in some cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.
The mass shooter at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in 2022 is being prosecuted for federal hate crime charges, which could potentially carry a death penalty sentence.