PITTSBURGH (AP) — The man who killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue was formally sentenced to death Thursday, one day after a jury determined that capital punishment was appropriate for the perpetrator of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
U.S. District Judge Robert Colville ordered death by lethal injection for Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver whose vicious antisemitism led him to shoot his way into a place of worship and target people for practicing their faith.
“I have nothing specific that I care to say to Mr. Bowers,” Colville said from the bench. “I am however convinced there is nothing I could say to him that might be meaningful.”
Grieving families confronted Bowers in court before Colville pronounced the sentence, describing the pain and suffering he had inflicted, and calling him evil and cowardly. Bowers, who chose not to speak, spent the entire hearing shuffling through papers and writing, and refused to look those he victimized in the eye, even when invited to do so.
Several survivors spoke of lingering traumas — sleeplessness, fear of crowds and loud noises, and physical and cognitive struggles triggered by the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. But survivors and family members, several wearing yarmulkes signifying Jewish observance, also emphasized their resilience in practicing the Judaism that the defendant hated.
Alan Mallinger, son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, the attack’s oldest victim, told Bowers the synagogue would be rebuilt, the scene of future bar and bat mitzvahs and other rituals of Jewish worship.
“We continue to thrive as Jewish people … stronger than ever,” he declared.
Bowers, from suburban Baldwin, ranted about Jews online before carrying out the attack at Tree of Life, in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, on Oct. 27, 2018. He killed members of the Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations, which shared the synagogue building. Bowers told police at the scene that “all these Jews must die” and has since expressed pride in the killings.
Jurors were unanimous in finding that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jews, and that he chose Tree of Life for its location in one of the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the nation so he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.” They also found that Bowers lacked remorse.
The jury rejected defense claims that Bowers has schizophrenia and that his delusions about Jewish people spurred the attack.
“Mr. Bowers, you met my beloved husband in the kitchen. Your callous disregard for the person he was repulses me,” testified Peg Durachko, wife of 65-year-old Dr. Richard Gottfried, a dentist who was shot and killed. “Your hateful act took my soulmate from me.”
Mark Simon, whose parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, were killed in the attack, testified he still has their bloodied prayer shawl. He said he remains haunted by the 911 call placed by his mother, whom Bowers shot while she was on the line.
“My parents died alone, without any living soul to comfort them or to hold their hand in their last moments,” said Simon, condemning “that defendant” and urging the judge to show him no mercy.
“You will never be forgiven. Never,” Simon told Bowers.
It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, who pledged during his 2020 campaign to end capital punishment. Biden’s Justice Department has placed a moratorium on federal executions and has declined to authorize the death penalty in hundreds of new cases where it could apply. But federal prosecutors said death was the appropriate punishment for Bowers, citing the vulnerability of his mainly elderly victims and his hate-based targeting of a religious community.
An appeal is expected, meaning that Bowers will likely spend years on federal death row even if the Justice Department lifts the moratorium on executions.
Bowers, who was armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, also shot and wounded seven, including five responding police officers. Sgt. Jonathan Craig, who responded to the attack as a member of the Pittsburgh police SWAT team, recalled on the witness stand Thursday that Bowers “begged for mercy” after being wounded in a shootout with police — after he had shown no mercy to those he murdered.
The gunman was convicted in June of 63 federal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.
In addition to Mallinger, Gottfried and the Simons, the deceased victims were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.
The synagogue has been closed since the shootings. The Tree of Life congregation plans to overhaul the synagogue complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers — speaking as a survivor and the “pastor of a wounded congregation” — said in court that many members remain hesitant to return to worship because of trauma or fear. “My beloved synagogue is the 12th victim,” he said.
The judge said he couldn’t begin to understand the pain of the survivors and loved ones of those killed in the attack.
“May their memory be a blessing,” said Colville, invoking the traditional Jewish expression in honor of the deceased.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.