A devastating attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, which claimed the lives of 11 worshippers, has been described as an act of “malice and hatred” during the ongoing trial of the accused gunman, Robert Bowers. The 50-year-old is facing over 60 federal charges, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The victims, eight men and three women, aged between 54 and 97, were killed on October 27, 2018, when the attacker entered the Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire. Bowers has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His lawyers had proposed a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors rejected the offer. Most of the victims’ families have expressed support for the death penalty.
Lead prosecutor Soo Song stated in her opening remarks that the defendant had moved methodically through the synagogue to find the Jews he hated and kill them. The court heard the distressing 911 call made by one of the victims, Bernice Simon, who was killed along with her husband, Sylvan. Several survivors were brought to tears during the proceedings.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack, recalled his prayers during the horrifying event, reflecting on the centuries of persecution faced by his people. The Tree of Life synagogue was shared by three congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light, and the Tree of Life.
Defence lawyer Judy Clarke acknowledged that there was no disputing her client carried out the attack but questioned whether he had acted out of hatred. She argued that the death penalty sentencing option was unconstitutional because Bowers suffers from serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. Clarke described him as “a socially awkward man who didn’t have many friends” with “misguided intent” and “irrational thoughts”.
Jurors were informed that Bowers frequently posted antisemitic slurs online, on sites like Gab, and prosecutors said he shouted “all Jews must die” during the attack. Investigators revealed that he was carrying multiple weapons, including a semi-automatic rifle. Police shot Bowers three times before subduing him, with five officers injured in the incident. The trial at the US District Court in Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania, is expected to last several weeks.
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