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Jury selection begins over 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack

Robert G. Bowers is accused of shooting to death 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history

People hug after lighting a candle in memory of one of 11 worshippers killed four years ago when a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh
People hug after lighting a candle in memory of one of 11 worshippers killed four years ago when a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh, on October 27, 2022.Gene J. Puskar (AP)

Jury selection began Monday in the federal death penalty trial of a truck driver accused of shooting to death 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Robert G. Bowers, who is from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 counts in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three Jewish congregations were holding Sabbath activities. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

Bowers, 50, could get the death sentence if convicted. He offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down even though Joe Biden pledged while campaigning for president three years ago that, if elected, he would work to end the federal death penalty. His lawyers also recently said he has schizophrenia and structural and functional brain impairments.

It was quiet outside the courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the start of the trial. U.S. District Judge Robert Colville began proceedings by thanking prospective jurors for their service, reciting a summary of the case and describing the phases of the trial. Bowers sat at the defense table with his attorneys and looked at documents as the judge spoke.

During the trial, prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements he allegedly made to investigators, an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred, and the guns recovered from him at the crime scene where police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.

The families of those killed were divided over whether the government should pursue the death penalty, but most were in favor.

Prosecutors indicated in court filings that they might introduce autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were subsequently shot to death. They have said their evidence includes a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock .357 handguns and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets and bullet fragments.

Bowers also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.

In an filing earlier this month, prosecutors said Bowers “harbored deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.

During a 2021 pretrial hearing, Officer Clint Thimons testified Bowers was “very calm and he said he’s had enough and that Jews are killing our children and the Jews had to die.” Another officer, David Blahut, said Bowers told him “these people are committing genocide on my people and I want to kill Jews.”

Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Bowers had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”

Colville, who was nominated to the court by President Donald Trump more than three years ago, previously spent nearly two decades as a county judge in Pittsburgh.

The three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the shootings. The Tree of Life Congregation also is working with partners on plans to renovate and rebuild on its synagogue, which still stands, by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.

The death penalty trial is proceeding three years after Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it. 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.

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