Federal prosecutors are saying overtly for the first time that the man charged with killing 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue did so because he’s antisemitic and his intended victims were Jewish.
Citing multiple antisemitic posts on the racist social media site Gab, federal prosecutors charged 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers with hate crimes.
In the new indictment, filed Tuesday in federal court in Pittsburgh, prosecutors cite three posts Bowers made to Gab in the two-plus weeks leading up to the shooting on Oct. 27, 2018.
In one post, Bowers wrote that “jews are the children of satan.” In a post on Oct. 10, Bowers referred to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Jewish congregations hosting refugee-related events.
“Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
Before entering the synagogue, Bowers posted to Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Gab has faced criticism for catering to racists, neo-Nazis and others on the far-right fringe and hate movements. An analysis by Hatewatch after Bowers’ arrest in October showed that Bowers frequently reposted content from influential alt-right accounts including those of Jared Wyand, an anti-immigration and antisemitic activist, and Bradley Dean Griffin, a white nationalist who runs the website Occidental Dissent.
Gab became the go-to social media site for racists after Twitter moved in December 2017 to suspend users who took part in hateful conduct, promote violence or physical harm to others or abuse fellow users.
As racists turned to the Twitter knockoff, Gab scrambled to find an online host as well as funding sources.
The new indictment adds 13 charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
It’s the same legal tactic federal prosecutors used in South Carolina to charge – and later convict – 24-year-old Dylann Storm Roof of shooting and killing nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Roof is now on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, while he appeals his case.
Roof’s conviction and the jury instructions in his case were cited several times by prosecutors in a court document on what elements of the crime must be proven.
Federal prosecutors in Virginia also used the law to charge 21-year-old James Alex Fields.
Fields faces a yet-unscheduled trial on those 30 federal charges, related to accusations that the young neo-Nazi sympathizer intentionally rammed his car into a crowd of couterprotesters and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer after the racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
A state jury convicted Fields of multiple counts of first-degree murder in December. He’s awaiting formal sentencing. A jury recommended a sentence of life in prison plus 419 years.
The use of the hate crimes laws allows federal prosecutors to seek a death sentence for Bowers if he’s convicted.
The Bowers case as well as the Fields case are part of an increase in the use of the death penalty under the Trump administration, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, which monitors death penalty cases.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Justice has approved seeking capital punishment in at least two dozen cases. In the final term of President Barack Obama, the Justice Department approved only one capital punishment prosecution – Roof’s.
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