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Death penalty verdict closes grim chapter in Pittsburgh

A federal jury in Pennsylvania sentenced the Tree of Life synagogue murderer to death on Wednesday, ending an often tense and painful time for the city of Pittsburgh and its Jewish community.

No one ever doubted Robert Bowers' guilt, given the preponderance of evidence against the 50-year-old Pennsylvania native. He carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history on Oct. 27, 2018, murdering 11 people who had been setting up for services that Saturday morning. Judy Clarke, Bowers’ own defense attorney, opened her case on May 30 by explaining that her client “shot everyone he saw” inside the religious facility, as Hatewatch previously reported. The jury found him guilty of all 63 counts against him on June 16 after only brief deliberation.

The shooter also announced on the white supremacist-friendly social media site Gab his intention to kill Jewish people, posting the words, “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” as a message to others in the movement who argued that violence undermined their cause. Prosecutors painted Bowers as a man consumed by his hatred of Jewish people, noting that he bragged about the murders afterward and expressed a desire to kill more people than he ultimately did.

The loosely moderated online community to which the shooter belonged on Gab still thrives on antisemitism, but this was particularly true in 2018 when he carried out the murders. Bowers immersed himself in propaganda, painting Jewish people as mischievous villains who seek to harm white Christians. He repeated those conspiracy theories to law enforcement immediately following his attack.

“These people are committing genocide on my people, and I just want to kill Jews,” he calmly told a police officer after the shooting.

Some white supremacists on fringe internet platforms further fed those conspiracy theories on Wednesday following Bowers’ death-penalty verdict, claiming that Jewish people received preferential treatment by America’s justice system. Such bigoted comments overlooked the fact that Jewish people led the opposition to the state wielding the death penalty against Bowers in this trial.

An unwanted outcome for some

Throughout the sometimes-arduous wait for justice, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community passionately disagreed over whether Bowers should be put to death. At the time of the attack, the Tree of Life synagogue space did not serve one congregation. It served three: Dor Hadash, Or L'Simcha and New Light. Dor Hadash is a reconstructionist congregation, meaning it is more progressive, and they publicly opposed the death penalty soon after the killings took place. Members of Dor Hadash cited both religious beliefs and a desire to resolve the trial as reasons to avoid capital punishment.

Prosecutors struggled to seat jurors that believed in the merits of the death penalty, as Hatewatch previously reported. Americans have shown a deceased appetite for the death penalty since the 1990s, and the sentence has become increasingly rare. Some potential jurors voiced their opposition to the institution during jury selection.

“Our justice system is not flawless,” one candidate said.

Another candidate, later dismissed by prosecutors, wept while recounting their family’s history of mental illness. In July, Bowers’ defense portrayed the killer as being mentally unwell, suffering brain abnormalities and surviving a harsh childhood, marked by his father’s suicide after being charged with rape.

None of these factors ultimately swayed the jury.

Photo by Cathal McNaughton, Reuters

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