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April 1, 2021 3:46 pm

Lawyers for Neo-Nazi Gunman Behind Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre Try New Maneuver to Avoid Death Penalty

avatar by Ben Cohen

A casket is carried from Rodef Shalom Temple after funeral services for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 30, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton.

Lawyers acting for Robert Bowers — the neo-Nazi gunman who murdered 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue — have requested access to prosecutors files on their client’s online activities prior to the massacre in Oct. 2018, as part of their wider strategy to avoid his execution.

In a motion filed this week, Bowers’ lawyers wrote that the evidence must be turned over to them under discovery rules.

“Federal courts have consistently recognized, and capital juries have consistently found, that the government’s awareness of the potential for a person to commit violence, and the government’s capacity to avert violence, are mitigating circumstances of a capital offense,” the motion said.

At his first court appearance in Feb. 2019, Pittsburgh resident Bowers pleaded not guilty to the 63 charges brought against him. In Oct. 2020, his lawyers shifted tack, beginning efforts for a plea bargain — so far rejected by the government — that would result in Bowers spending the rest of his life in prison, but also avoiding the death penalty sought by the Justice Department.

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His lawyers cited the prosecution’s reliance on Bowers’ activity on social media platforms such as Gab to demonstrate “aggravating factors” necessary for the death sentence to be passed. These include proving that Bowers attacked the synagogue following significant planning and premeditation, that he was motivated by religious animus based on expressions of hate and contempt toward Jews, and that he chose the synagogue for the shooting with the intent to instill fear in the Jewish community.

In the motion filed on Wednesday, the defense wrote: “It is plain from the government’s filings that it has reviewed Mr. Bowers’ online activity, at least on Gab .com. What is not plain, and what the government has declined to provide in response to Mr. Bowers’ discovery requests, is whether the government was aware of his online activity prior to the shootings, as well as his exposure to the comments of others suggesting or promoting violence or expressing antisemitic comments on Gab .com.”

Specifically, the defense is asking whether Bowers or any other user on Gab  was monitored or identified in 2018 as a person who posed a threat of mobilizing to violence. It also wants to clarify whether “any federal program or law enforcement agency investigating white supremacy or online radicalization identified him before the synagogue shooting as a threat to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh,” Pennsylvania news outlet TribLive reported on Thursday.

Prosecutors have until April 21 to respond to the request from Bowers’ legal team.

On the morning of the Oct. 27, 2018 attack — the deadliest antisemitic assault in the entire history of the American Jewish community — Bowers took to Gab to declare: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Among his victims at the Tree of Life synagogue were a 97-year-old woman, two brothers in their 50s and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before Bowers, who was himself shot by police, eventually surrendered.

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