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Jury: Death penalty recommended for Pennsylvania Synagogue shooter

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//August 3, 2023//

Justice Department

U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Staff photo

Jury: Death penalty recommended for Pennsylvania Synagogue shooter

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//August 3, 2023//

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The Pennsylvania man responsible for killing 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, critically wounding two others, and injuring five responding police officers in October 2018 has received a recommended death sentence this week.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the mass shooting was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.

On June 16, the jury found Robert Bowers, age 50, guilty on 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.

On July 13, after hearing additional evidence, the jury found Bowers was eligible to receive a death sentence, according to Department of Justice officials. During the Sentence Selection phase of the trial, which lasted from July 17 through July 31, the jury then heard testimony on aggravating and mitigating factors before arriving at its unanimous recommendation of a death sentence.

“The horrific attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, stole the lives of 11 innocent victims, shattered their families, gutted their congregation and the Pittsburgh community, and struck fear in the lives of Jewish people across the country,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

“Hate crimes like this one inflict irreparable pain on individual victims and their loved ones and lead entire communities to question their very belonging. All Americans deserve to live free from the fear of hate-fueled violence and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who perpetrate such acts,” Garland added.

FBI officials remain committed to protecting Americans from violent acts of hate.

“The men and women of the FBI hold the Tree of Life Synagogue victims and the Pittsburgh community in our hearts as we continue to protect communities of faith from violent acts of hate,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“The damage caused by antisemitism cannot be understated, just as the tragic loss of the eleven victims cannot be measured. Healing will be a life-long journey for the survivors, families, and communities affected by this vile attack, and the FBI will be there to support them throughout that journey,” Director Wray added.

Justice Department officials said they hope the verdict brings closure.

“The massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue imposed grievous and far-reaching harms and is a reminder about the ongoing threat that we face as a result of antisemitic violence and hatred in our country,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“The victims of these senseless murders were community and religious leaders and loving family members and friends. A jury of his peers held the defendant accountable for his hateful actions and provided justice for those killed and injured. The verdict, though, cannot bring back the 11 people killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Nor can it heal the physical and psychological wounds of the survivors or dispel the hurt and fear of community members. We hope that this civil rights prosecution brings a measure of closure and highlights the determination of the Justice Department to protect people from antisemitic violence and other hate crimes in our country,” Clarke said.

“The evidence in this trial proved that the defendant acted because of white supremacist, anti-Semitic and bigoted views that unfortunately are not original or unique to him,” said U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Our Constitution protects a person’s right to hold repugnant beliefs. But our Constitution also protects every person’s right to practice his or her faith. When people who espouse white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and bigoted views pick up weapons and use them to kill or try to kill people because of their faith, our Office and our partners in law enforcement will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Each and every time,” Olshan said.

The evidence showed that on Oct. 27, 2018, Bowers drove to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Jewish congregations gathered to engage in religious worship. Bowers entered the building armed with multiple firearms, including three Glock .357 handguns and a Colt AR-15 rifle. While inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers opened fire, killing and injuring members of the three congregations, as well as injuring multiple responding police officers as they attempted to rescue surviving victims, Justice Department officials said.

The victims include 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue who were killed: Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. In addition, the defendant critically injured two congregants. Another 12 congregants escaped physical injury. Additionally, the victims include five responding police officers who were injured while attempting to rescue surviving victims and apprehend the defendant, Justice Department officials added.

“The evidence showed that the defendant meticulously planned his attack based on his violently antisemitic beliefs, reflected in dozens of online posts admitted into evidence,” officials noted.

The court will impose the sentence on Aug. 3.

U.S. Attorney Eric G. Olshan and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Troy Rivetti, Soo C. Song and Nicole Vasquez Schmitt for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Trial Attorney Mary J. Hahn of the Civil Rights Division, and Trial Attorneys Barry K. Disney and Aaron J. Stewart of the Criminal Division’s Capital Case Unit prosecuted the case. Special Litigation Counsel Julia Gegenheimer of the Civil Rights Division and Trial Attorney Sonia Jiminez of the Criminal Division also made significant contributions to the prosecution of this case.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, Yousef Barasneh, of Oak Creek, allegedly defaced a Michigan Jewish house of worship  Temple Jacob  with swastikas and symbols associated with The Base, a multi-state, white supremacist group, according to court documents obtained by The Wisconsin Law Journal.

Barasneh also spray-painted anti-Semitic symbols and language on the building of Beth Israel Sinai Congregation, a Jewish synagogue, in Racine in 2019, according to the indictment.

Newly released supplemental data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that reported hate crime incidents in 2021 rose to 10,840 incidents, the highest level recorded in more than two decades.

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