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May 3, 2023 8:59 am

District Judge Rejects Pittsburgh Synagogue Gunman’s Appeal to be Spared Death Penalty as Trial Looms

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Police tape is seen in front of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the October 2018 shooting attack. Photo: Reuters/Alan Freed

The neo-Nazi gunman who murdered 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in Oct. 2018 could still face execution after the judge in his forthcoming trial ruled that the defense had failed to make a case to remove the death penalty as a punishment.

US District Judge Robert Colville said on Tuesday that the legal team representing the accused killer, Robert Bowers, “fails entirely to establish a basis upon which the court could conclude that the government has arbitrarily sought the death penalty in this case.”

Pittsburgh resident Bowers has been charged with 63 criminal counts in the massacre he carried out during shabbat services at the synagogue, which housed three congregations. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

Attorneys for Bowers, a 50-year-old trucker, had already offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence without parole, but prosecutors refused and are seeking the death penalty, a move most of the victims’ families support, the AP news agency reported.

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In a legal filing last month, Bowers’ lawyers argued the Justice Department lacked “a discernible, principled basis” for seeking the death penalty against Bowers but not for defendants in comparable cases. The defense also objected to the procedure by which the government considered Bowers’ request to reconsider its pursuit of capital punishment.

Colville agreed with the Justice Department’s argument that Bowers failed to account for the differences between his case and the other cases for which the government did not seek the death penalty.

Prospective jurors are still being interviewed for the case, with more than 100 individuals questioned by both prosecution and defense attorneys during the last week. Most of the questioning by Bowers’ team has focused on the jurors views of the death penalty in the case.

On Oct. 27, 2018, Bowers burst into the synagogue shouting “All Jews must die” as he opened fire on the defenseless congregants.

Prosecutors say Bowers frequently posted antisemitic comments on right-wing social-media websites, including a post on the morning of the shooting in which he decried the work of a US Jewish charity, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Among those killed in the attack 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 the gunman was shot by police and surrendered.

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