Pittsburgh man goes on trial for synagogue attack, could face death penalty

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The man accused of opening fire and killing 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history faces a potential death sentence at the end of a federal trial that begins on Monday with jury selection.

Robert Bowers, 50, is accused of dozens of charges, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, in a massacre that unfolded at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.

On Monday, federal prosecutors and attorneys for Bowers were to begin selecting 12 jurors to sit for what is expected to be a weeks-long criminal trial at the U.S. District Court in the western Pennsylvania city.

If jurors decide Bowers is guilty of the crimes he faces, they will then determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or be executed by lethal injection.

In seeking the death penalty, federal prosecutors will try to prove aggravating factors in their case against Bowers, including that he substantially planned the attack and that he targeted vulnerable victims.

In court filings, lawyers for Bowers have repeatedly tried to get the court to strike the death penalty as a sentencing option, calling it unconstitutional on the grounds that he suffers from major mental illness, including schizophrenia.

A onetime truck driver who frequently posted antisemitic slurs online, Bowers stormed the synagogue during Saturday services and yelled “All Jews must die,” according to prosecutors.

In addition to the mostly elderly congregants who died in the shooting, two others were wounded, along with five police officers. Bowers surrendered and was taken into custody after he was wounded in a shootout with police.

Federal authorities said Bowers entered the synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood where many residents are Jewish, armed with multiple firearms.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot)