A federal jury has delivered a death sentence to Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 Jews inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning.
The sentence follows the jury’s decision to convict Bowers on all 63 charges he faced as a result of the mass shooting. Those charges included hate crimes, namely obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death, the Associated Press reported, noting that Bowers’ counsel said he would take a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. Federal prosecutors instead decided to take the case to trial and pursue the death penalty, which most victims’ families supported.
During the trial, prosecutors called on 60 witnesses, and survivors testified to their horrifying experiences inside the synagogue. As reported by The New York Times, shooting survivor Andrea Wedner described how she tried to comfort her 97-year-old mother, who had been shot and eventually died as a result, while Wedner herself had been shot in her right arm.
Over 40 prisoners are on federal death row, and from July 2020 to January 2021, the government carried out 13 federal executions under former President Donald Trump’s administration. No executions have been carried out during President Joe Biden’s tenure, and the last federal execution before July 2020 occurred in March 2003. Although more than 40 other individuals are on federal death row, none of them have executions scheduled.
Nine months before the Tree of Life shooting, an account under Bowers’ name appeared on Gab, an extreme, right-wing social media platform that has hosted users such as Andrew Anglin, the founder of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website. Bowers’ bio on Gab read “jews are the children of satan,” and weeks before the shooting, he posted a link to the website of HIAS—a Jewish nonprofit that provides aid to refugees. Hours before the shooting, Bowers wrote on Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
At the trial, jurors determined that Bowers, who killed 11 people between the ages of 54 and 97, lacked remorse for his actions. He even told a psychiatrist that he believed the trial was helping disseminate his antisemitic message.
In the immediate aftermath of Bowers’ attack, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League told The New York Times that before the Tree of Life shooting, the deadliest antisemitic attacks in recent American history were a 1985 shooting in Seattle—in which a man murdered a family of four, having mistakenly thought the family was Jewish—and a shooting by a white supremacist who killed three people in 2014 outside a Jewish Community Center near Kansas City, MO, though none of those victims were Jewish either.
Top Image: A memorial for shooting victims outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. (Wikimedia Commons: CC-BY-SA-4.0/Dmitry Brant)