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Pittsburgh Mass Shooting Trial Forced Discussion of Death Penalty, Guns, Hate

Content warning: This article contains graphic depictions of gun violence and antisemitism. Reader discretion is advised.

After a jury convicted Robert Bowers last week on the 63 charges related to his attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the city is grappling with the specters of gun violence, antisemitism and questions about capital punishment’s efficacy.

Tree of Life memorial
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. 29th Oct, 2018. Community members gather on Oct. 29, 2018, to pay their respects at the memorial to the 11 victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre earlier that month. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

The shooter faced judgment for storming the Tree of Life synagogue on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, fatally shooting 11 worshippers in what became the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. He now faces a potential death sentence, which has become increasingly rare and speaks to the gravity of what happened in Pittsburgh that morning.

The attacker believed in the racist “great replacement” theory when he shot and killed his Jewish victims, targeting the synagogue for their work with refugees, according to his own statements. Whether Bowers carried out the attack was never in doubt during the trial. Judy Clarke, his own defense lawyer, told the jury on May 30 her client “shot every person he saw” in the Tree of Life synagogue that morning.

Due to the heightened stakes of death penalty cases, survivors of the attack waited for justice for the better part of five years. The trial’s slow pace added to the wait. Jury selection started on April 21, but opening statements weren’t delivered until May 30 – a consequence of the contentiousness around capital punishment cases.

An unvarnished reckoning with right-wing violence

The trial exhibited the horror of radical-right terror in simple, brutal ways. On June 6, prosecutors showed images of gunshot exit wounds roughly the size of human fists on slain congregants. Through expert testimony, they distinguished the differences between smaller exit wounds caused by pistols and the kind of grotesque explosions caused by the Colt AR-15 rifle the shooter used on his victims.

Prosecutors showed X-rays of bullet fragments scattered throughout the throat of one victim and another where bullets eviscerated another person’s heart. A medical examiner showed how one victim appeared to be shot through the head and neck at such close range that the temperature created by the bullet burned their skin “like melted plastic.” Prosecutors played police body-cam footage captured outside the synagogue during the attack in which bullets rang out in dull, thudding repetition. They also showed images of bodies lying motionless in pools of blood.

Bowers Gab post
A screenshot captured from Gab in summer 2018 shows Robert Bowers and neo-Confederate Brad Griffin collaborating to "dox" (reveal the identity of) an antiracist activist.

Prosecutors wove in the shooter’s stark hatred of Jewish people, which he repeatedly broadcast on the radical-right social media website Gab before the attack. On June 6, a Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officer testified that the shooter said, “I had to do it,” adding: “Jews are the children of Satan.” A tactical SWAT commander testified that Bowers told him “invaders were coming, Jews are killing our children” and that he had to “take action.” Another officer testified on June 7 that the shooter told him in a calm voice, “These people are committing genocide on my people, and I just want to kill Jews,” after the shooting.

Complexities of modern death penalty cases on display

Both the waiting time and graphic imagery emphasized during the trial can be attributed to the shooter facing the death penalty, which some members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community publicly opposed.

Tree of Life was home to the congregations Dor Hadash, Or L'Simcha and New Light. Dor Hadash, a reconstructionist, more progressive congregation, publicly opposed the state putting the shooter to death, citing both religious beliefs and a desire for an expedient trial. In June 2021, Bruce Herschlag, then the congregation’s president, issued a statement condemning capital punishment.

“A guilty plea with a guarantee of life in prison would spare us from the trauma associated with a capital trial and the years of appeals that would follow,” the statement read.

Some members of the Tree of Life community disagreed. Dor Hadash did not get its wish, and today what is left of the trial now hinges entirely on whether or not the state should execute Bowers.

The court faced difficulty seating a jury. On May 8, a potential juror wept while discussing their own family’s history of mental illness.

On May 9, when pressed by the prosecution on their beliefs regarding the death penalty’s efficacy, another potential juror said: “We’re all going to die. We don’t know when. I don’t know if spending one’s life in prison is that different [from dying].”

Both the shooter’s defense team and the prosecution successfully eliminated jurors based upon their views on the death penalty.

“Our justice system is not flawless,” the same juror later added, expressing a reluctance to send someone to death.

Robin M. Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit focused on providing information about capital punishment to the public, told Hatewatch that “people are less and less willing to return sentences of death” in America today, and that evidence points away from practice serving as an effective criminal deterrent. Maher added that divisions among communities in cases like these are commonplace.

“We shouldn’t expect that everyone is going to have the same reaction to losing a loved one,” she said.

A fight for gun safety coincides with the trial

Hatewatch attended a May 10 event hosted by Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence at Congregation Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, where emotions over the shooter’s killing spree were channeled into activism over gun safety. Founded in the wake of the attack, the group has advocated for gun safety legislation that they argue has widespread support.

“It was clearly an antisemitic attack, but what makes antisemitism deadly is the guns,” Dana Kellerman, the group’s policy director told Hatewatch. The group backed four pieces of gun safety legislation that were making their way through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Kellerman, who is also a member of the Dor Hadash congregation, described the activism around guns as placing emphasis on the future rather than the past.

“We’re not concerned about this particular shooter. We are concerned about what happens to the next community,” she said, referring to places that abruptly find themselves at the center of mass shooting attacks or other gun violence.

On May 22, two of the four bills Kellerman and her allies supported passed the Pennsylvania House. One bill requires background checks for private sales of long guns. Another allows for emergency orders that will enable law enforcement agents to temporarily seize guns belonging to people perceived to be in crisis. The bill’s supporters argue that it will limit suicides and could also potentially prevent some mass shootings.

Building bridges in Pittsburgh following heartbreak

At the gun-safety event in May, Dr. Carolyn Ban, an 80-year-old Dor Hadash congregant said the trial brought back difficult memories, sentiment shared by others in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

“The horror of mass murder is just gut-wrenching,” Ban told Hatewatch. “I lost a very dear friend that morning.”

For those who spoke to Hatewatch, the pain of being targeted simply for being Jewish was also difficult to describe. As the trial unfolded, a white supremacist named Hardy Carroll Lloyd even called for more antisemitic violence in Bowers’ name, reopening old fears.

More than one person said that they saw the targeting of Jewish people as an opportunity to build solidarity between their community and communities of color in Pittsburgh, who they said were victimized by the same beliefs that helped radicalize the synagogue shooter.

After the Tree of Life attack, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, a Jewish advocacy and social justice group, made headlines when they asked then-President Donald Trump not to visit their community without first denouncing white supremacy. Trump never acknowledged their request, and some Jewish residents of Pittsburgh welcomed his arrival despite protests against him.

“Four months before the shooting at Tree of Life, an East Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed a Black teenager named Antwon Rose Jr.,” Dr. Avigail Oren, a writer and historian who organizes with the group, told Hatewatch by email. “The Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action listened when the grieving Black community expressed that the lack of attention and support they received compared to the Jewish community was both hurtful, and an expression of racism.”

Oren added, “While the inclination after tragedy is to turn inward, we are proud of how we and our Black and progressive partners have pushed ourselves to build solidarity and strong political coalitions across communities.”

Oren said her group and members of the Black community successfully campaigned for three political candidates in Allegheny County after the tragedy.

University of Pittsburgh sociologist Dr. Kathleen Blee, a member of Dor Hadash and an expert on radical-right extremism, also discussed building bridges with other communities that have faced tragedy. She told Hatewatch that experiencing the attack so close to home “further invigorated” her “work to curb white supremacist violence.”

“The [neighborhood around the] synagogue is one of the larger Jewish communities in the country. This is a very progressive city overall,” Blee said by phone on May 23. “There is far-right activity around here in Pennsylvania, but it’s pretty scattered. This has not been the site of real, organized far-right activity. I would say that antisemitism was not on people’s radars, locally. And people had no reason to feel vulnerable to such an attack.”

Blee admitted to being stunned to go so rapidly from studying radical-right extremism to dealing with its aftermath at home. “It’s very shocking that something you study happens in your own life,” she said.

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