More than four years after what was believed to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history, the man accused of fatally shooting 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is facing a rare death penalty case.
Jury selection has begun in the trial of Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old Pittsburgh-area man who faces 63 counts in a federal indictment, including 22 with the death penalty.
The massacre caused agony and fear in the American Jewish community amid a surge in anti-Semitism cases – and spurred renewed debate over hate crime laws.
Now the trial has renewed painful memories of that tragic day.
“I have a number of families here of survivors and (of) victims,” said State Rep. Daniel Frankel, who oversees the neighborhood where Tree of Life is located. “It is traumatizing that this process is taking place. But it is necessary. And our community is very resilient.”
Here’s what you should know about the synagogue shooting trial:
The trial is expected to be lengthy, and jury selection alone could take weeks — possibly up to mid-May — the court estimates. Part of the challenge is screening jury candidates for their feelings about the death penalty.
The trial itself could last until mid-July, the court warned would-be jurors.
Bowers faces federal charges including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs, resulting in death and using a firearm to commit murder during a violent crime. He has pleaded not guilty.
His defense team has offered a plea deal: life in prison in exchange for removing the possibility of the death penalty, court documents show. But the federal prosecutors have not been moved by this request.
Prosecutors have cited multiple reasons for pursuing the death penalty, saying Bowers’ anti-Semitic views played a role in the shooting; the shooting was intentional; and Bowers showed no remorse, according to a federal notice to seek the death penalty.
Bowers’ trial began during the Trump administration, before the Biden-era US Department of Justice enacted a federal moratorium on the death penalty.
The bloodshed took place on October 27, 2018, when three congregations held Saturday Shabbat services at the Tree of Life.
The killing spree left 11 dead and several wounded.
Among the victims killed were a beloved community doctor, a great-grandmother and a couple who married in the same synagogue more than 60 years ago.
After officers arrived at the scene, a shootout broke out between the suspect and police. Bowers was shot multiple times.
During the shooting, Bowers made anti-Semitic comments, according to an FBI affidavit.
“You are committing genocide against my people,” he told police, according to the FBI document. “I only want to kill Jews.”
Shortly after the massacre — while Bowers was in custody and receiving medical treatment — he told a SWAT officer that he wanted all Jews to die, and also that “they (Jews) are committing genocide against his people,” according to one police criminal complaint.
The alleged killer also posted radical, anti-Semitic views on the social media platform Gab, authorities said.
He claimed then-President Donald Trump was surrounded by too many Jews, used anti-Semitic slurs, wrote about an “infestation” and posted pictures of his handgun collection, a law enforcement source said.
Shortly before the massacre, Bowers checked in with Gab and wrote to his followers, “I cannot stand by and see my people slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre is considered the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The bloodshed has sparked new discussions about hate crime laws.
“One of the things we’ve been trying to do for years is just update the hate crime law in Pennsylvania,” said Frankel, the state’s representative.
“We believe we need to provide our communities with better tools to confront what seems to have become the norm across our country… reaching out to people because they are, who they love, what they believe in, and tools to address this” , the Democratic lawmaker told CNN on Monday.
“We want to update the current laws to provide clearer penalties to provide a civil procedure to educate our law enforcement officers on how to identify and prosecute hate crimes,” Frankel said. “There is an epidemic in our country.”