Sunday, July 16, 2023

Tree of Life Synagogue killer eligible for the death penalty

A Pennsylvania federal jury on found the gunman responsible for the shooting deaths of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania eligible for the death penalty. Robert Bowers now faces an additional trial in which the same jury will determine whether he should be sentenced to death or given life imprisonment, reported Jurist. A Pennsylvania federal jury previously found Bowers guilty on 63 criminal charges—including hate crimes—on June 16.

According to local reporters from KDKA within the room, which was otherwise closed to cameras, the jury weighed three questions in determining Bowers’ eligibility for the death penalty. Those three questions were:

  • Is Bowers 18 or older?
  • Did Bowers have the criminal intent to commit the crimes he was convicted of?
  • Was there one or more aggravating factors present in the commission of those crimes?

After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned and unanimously answered “yes” to all three questions. As a result, the same panel of jurors will now sit for an additional trial in which federal prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania and Bowers’ defense counsel will present evidence and testimony as to whether or not Bowers should suffer the death penalty. That trial is set to begin as soon as Monday, July 17.

In closing statements, prior to the jury’s Thursday verdict, prosecutors argued Bowers “intended to hunt down and kill every Jew he could find.” They continued, “He fired his rifle more than 70 times in the Tree of Life synagogue, each time he pulled the trigger, he was proving his intent to kill.” In response, in their closing statements, the defense argued that Bowers was “delusional” at the time of the shooting and therefore did not possess the intent that prosecutors claimed.

Outside of the courthouse on Thursday, reporters spoke to President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Jeffrey Finkelstein, who said, “This is clear that this was hatred of Jews. This was antisemitism. It is not mental health. They are two different things.” Finkelstein also told reporters that he had spoken to the families of some of the victims. He said that they are eager to share their stories in the upcoming trial to determine Bowers’ sentence.

Under federal law, a criminal defendant is eligible for the death penalty in only three circumstances: if they are charged with a death penalty-eligible crime, if they have a high level of culpability or intent to kill the victim, or if there are one or more aggravating factors present in the case. In this case, 11 of the 63 charges against Bowers involved the obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death under 18 U.S.C. § 247, which made Bowers eligible for the death penalty. On top of that, prosecutors presented and proved that there were aggravating factors present in the case which warranted the application of the death penalty.

The shooting occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018 during Shabbat services. Bowers entered the building with multiple firearms and opened fire on the congregation gathered inside, resulting in 11 deaths and 7 injuries. Over the course of Bowers’ trial, prosecutors revealed evidence of Bowers’ participation in and consumption of white supremacist media. This evidence is what ultimately led the jury to convict Bowers on all 63 criminal charges.

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