On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people who had gathered to worship, the deadliest antisemitic attack in the nation’s history. On Monday, more than four years later, the trial of the man accused of the massacre will begin with jury selection.
The trial will take place in two phases, the first concerning guilt and the second on the penalty. As the facts surrounding the shooting are mostly undisputed, it will effectively be a monthslong tribunal about whether the defendant, Robert Bowers, 50, should be executed. His lawyers have offered to resolve the case with a guilty plea on all counts in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of release, but federal prosecutors have rejected these offers.
Trials for mass shooters are relatively rare, given that these massacres often end with the death of the attacker. The man who killed 12 people in a Colorado movie theater in 2012 was sentenced to life in prison after a 10-week trial; the white supremacist who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, was convicted and sentenced to death. The former student who killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., pleaded guilty but faced a sentencing trial last year, where a jury voted to keep him in prison for life.
Here’s what to know as the Tree of Life trial begins:
Who were the victims?
At the time of the attack, the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue, which sits in a friendly neighborhood with a rich Jewish history, was home to three separate congregations, all of which were gathering for services in different parts of the building. The Tree of Life congregation, founded in Pittsburgh more than 150 years ago, and the smaller New Light congregation are both part of the Conservative branch of Judaism; the third congregation, Dor Hadash, is Reconstructionist, a more liberal branch.
Members of all three congregations were killed in the attack. The victims were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; Irving Younger, 69; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; the couple Bernice, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 87; and the brothers Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54.
Six people were wounded, including four police officers.
The attack drew shock and outrage from across the world, and brought people from across religious communities in Pittsburgh together in support of the congregations that were attacked. Some members of Dor Hadash created a nonprofit to lobby for new gun laws. The Tree of Life building, which sat empty for years after the massacre, is being redesigned by the architect Daniel Libeskind and will soon become the home of a new organization dedicated to ending antisemitism. On Sunday, members of the Tree of Life congregation gathered in the synagogue garden to say goodbye to their old building.
Who is the accused gunman?
Mr. Bowers grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, raised by his mother and extended family. When he was a child, his estranged father was charged with raping a woman in the same neighborhood where the mass shooting would later happen, and killed himself before trial.
After high school, Mr. Bowers worked as a delivery driver for a bakery and later as a long-haul trucker. He tinkered with electronics, worked on the website of a conservative talk radio show, and, neighbors said, kept mostly to himself, at least in the offline world.
Online, he was a prolific and virulent presence on right-wing forums, chatting with and reposting prominent white supremacists and in his own posts showing particular vitriol toward immigrants and Jews.
In several posts before the killing, he turned his ire on HIAS, an organization that helps resettle refugees in the United States. Dor Hadash had been one of hundreds of Jewish congregations nationwide to celebrate a National Refugee Shabbat a week before the massacre. Mr. Bowers singled that out in his posts, writing shortly before the killing: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The authorities said that he had 21 guns registered in his name, and that he carried out the shooting at Tree of Life with three Glock .357 handguns and a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Mr. Bowers was injured during a shootout with the police that ended the attack. He was later charged with 63 crimes, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death and 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. He is facing 36 state charges as well, including 11 counts of murder, but the Allegheny County District Attorney is holding those charges in abeyance for the federal criminal proceedings.
What do his defense lawyers say?
Mr. Bowers’s defense team has argued in briefs that a series of psychiatric and neurological tests, along with “significant events” in his life history, have established that he is suffering from a “major mental illness” that includes schizophrenia, in addition to having “structural and functional brain impairments” and epilepsy.
His defense team includes Judy Clarke, who has made a career pleading with juries to spare the lives of people responsible for some of the nation’s most notorious acts of violence, including one of the Boston Marathon bombers, the Unabomber and the man who opened fire in an Arizona grocery store parking lot, killing six people and injuring 13, including former Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
Mr. Bowers’s lawyers have repeatedly but unsuccessfully challenged the government’s intention to seek the death penalty. In a filing this year, defense lawyers argued that under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the Justice Department had been arbitrary in deciding whether or not to pursue capital punishment. They cited hundreds of other murder cases in which Mr. Garland had elected not to seek the death penalty, including the 2019 mass shooting by an anti-immigrant extremist in a Walmart in El Paso.
The government has rebutted these arguments by insisting that there are factors in this case, such as Mr. Bowers’s open antisemitism and his decision to attack during a worship service, “that make the death penalty specifically warranted here.”
What have the congregations’ members said about seeking the death penalty?
There is a wide array of opinions about this case among members of the three congregations, including among those who survived the attack and family members of the victims.
The rabbi of New Light and members of Dor Hadash have publicly urged the government not to pursue the death penalty, an opposition that was motivated, they said in letters and speeches, by religious and ethical principles as well as concerns about the effects of a prolonged trial on already traumatized people. Such an ordeal, the president of Dor Hadash wrote in a letter to Mr. Garland, could “impede the healing process for some of our members.” Federal prosecutors have expressed their intentions to play 911 calls from terrified congregants describing the killings as they took place and show graphic autopsy photographs at trial.
But family members of nine of the 11 victims wrote in a letter to The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle last year that accepting a plea from Mr. Bowers, thus avoiding a trial and the possibility of his execution, would be letting him “have the easy way out.”
“His crimes deserve the death penalty,” they wrote.