Pittsburgh jury condemns Tree of Life synagogue killer to death

(Reuters) -A federal jury on Wednesday voted to sentence Robert Bowers to death for killing 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

In June, the jury found Bowers, 50, guilty of dozens of federal hate crimes in a trial held at the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. Bowers was convicted of 63 counts, including 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

Two weeks ago, during the first phase of sentencing, the jury found Bowers eligible for the death penalty. Jurors then heard testimony and arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys as to whether he deserved to be put to death for the killings.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Bowers deserved the death sentence because he showed no remorse and the attack was premeditated and targeted a place of worship including vulnerable elderly worshipers.

Bowers’ defense lawyers did not dispute that he planned and carried out the attack on the synagogue during Sabbath morning services. He combed through the building shooting everyone he found with a semiautomatic rifle and three pistols. His lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Bowers suffered from life-long mental illness and was delusional.

The jury was instructed to vote on more than 100 mitigating factors advanced by the defense lawyers. All 12 jurors indicated on the verdict sheet that the defense did not prove Bowers suffered from schizophrenia, as some defense experts testified.

Jurors also heard testimony from some survivors and were shown evidence of Bowers’ antisemitism, including multiple posts attacking Jews on a far-right website in the months leading up to the attack.

In federal capital cases, a unanimous vote by jurors in a separate penalty phase of the trial is required to sentence a defendant to death, and the judge cannot reject the jury’s vote. Had the jury been unable to reach a unanimous decision, Bowers would have instead been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville is due to formally sentence Bowers to death at a hearing on Thursday morning, during which some relatives of Bowers’ victims were expected to address the court.

The jury’s decision on Wednesday marks the first time since U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office in January 2020 that federal prosecutors have successfully sought and won the death penalty.

It is not clear when, if ever, Bowers will be executed. The U.S. Department of Justice has a moratorium on carrying out federal executions while it reviews the death penalty, which Biden pledged to abolish when he was running for the presidency.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who hid in a bathroom during the attack, thanked the jury in a statement. “It is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward,” he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Mark Potter and Cynthia Osterman)