May 28, 2024
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Death Penalty in Pittsburgh

This painting, made by Hillside resident and artist Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, represents the 11 lives who died al kiddush Hashem at the Tree of Life* Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue shooting. He painted the 11 golden lights only after reading out each victim’s name and age, repeating that each was “murdered for being Jewish and praying in a synagogue.” It was purchased by the World Zionist Organization and will be displayed in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. (Image courtesy of Rabbi Yitzchok Moully/Moullyart.com)

After fewer than two days of deliberations, all 12 jurors seated on a federal jury in Pittsburgh sentenced Tree of Life* Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers to death. Had the juror vote not been unanimous, Bowers would have faced life in prison.

Bowers, 50, murdered 11 worshippers, most of them elderly, including a 97-year-old woman, when he opened fire on the members of three congregations who had gathered at the Squirrel Hill neighborhood-based synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, and fired over 100 rounds, turning the place into a “hunting ground.” It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.

The victims were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

The trial, which began jury selection in April, concluded last week after tearful testimony from survivors, first responders and others. Officer Michael Saldutte, a Pittsburgh police SWAT team officer, described how he exchanged gunfire with the shooter. Police had cornered Bowers in a dark top-floor classroom, where he opened fire on them with the AR-15 assault weapon he had already used to kill 11 victims, while wounding two others. He also shot a police officer in the hand. Saldutte testified that as the two exchanged gunfire, Bowers said: “The Jews are killing our women and children” and “I had to do this.”

Bowers’ defense attorneys used the claim of mental illness in their representation, claiming that Bowers has schizophrenia, epilepsy and “structural and function impairments of the brain.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Katherine Porterfield testified in a report submitted in his defense that Bowers “had multiple, severe, chronic traumatic life events and circumstances that put him at risk for serious mental illness.”

The judge also overruled the defense’s attempt to limit the number of grisly crime-scene photos the prosecution could present, though directed the jury not to let the photos prejudice them.

It was reported that Bowers offered to plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table, but prosecutors turned him down. Instead, he was convicted on June 16, 2023 on 63 criminal counts, including 11 counts each of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

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