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Courts & Justice

Jewish Congregation Again Asks DOJ To ‘Abandon Its Quest For The Death Penalty’ In Tree of Life Case

Tree of Life fence photo.jpg
Kathleen Davis
90.5 WESA
In this file photo from 2019, a fence outside the Tree of Life synagogue bears 101 images from young people around the world. The display was installed nearly a year after a mass shooting took place in the building on Oct. 27, 2018.

A Jewish congregation that was attacked in the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue has asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to drop the feds’ effort to have the accused gunman sentenced to death.

In a letter to Garland last Thursday, Dor Hadash Congregation President Bruce Herschlag requested that the U.S. Justice Department “abandon its quest for the death penalty” against Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 worshippers in the attack.

The shooting is believed to be the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history. The victims included members of three congregations that met at the Squirrel Hill synagogue: Dor Hadash, Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha, and New Light.

“We are desirous of seeing justice meted out in a manner that is both consistent with our religious values and that spares us from the painful ordeal of prolonged legal maneuvering” often associated with capital cases, Herschlag wrote on behalf of Dor Hadash.

The congregation made a similar plea to former U.S. Attorney General William Barr two years ago, when the feds announced they would seek capital punishment for Bowers.

Dor Hadash communications chair Dana Kellerman said her congregation hopes that Garland will be “more open” than Barr to reconsidering prosecutors' plan for Bowers. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in western Pennsylvania, which is leading the prosecution, declined to comment on the congregation’s letter.

Forgoing a capital prosecution, Kellerman said, would honor the memory of one of the slain congregants, Dor Hadash member Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a firm opponent of the death penalty.

In addition, Kellerman said, “We don’t need to be retraumatized every time there’s an appeal if it’s a death-penalty case."

Consisting of two separate proceedings, capital prosecutions are lengthy by design. In the first phase, a jury determines whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury chooses to convict, it then must decide in a second trial whether to impose the death penalty. Capital convictions often prompt years of appeals.

In his letter, Herschlag noted that prosecutors could avoid that prospect — and the publicity it surely would attract — by negotiating a plea deal with Bowers, who reportedly is willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

“A guilty plea with a guarantee of life in prison would spare us from the trauma associated with a capital trial and the years of appeals that would follow,” Herschlag said.

He also objected to a potential death sentence on religious grounds.

While the Torah permits capital punishment for a range of offenses, Herschlag noted that ancient rabbis and sages created a legal system that made it virtually impossible to impose a death sentence.

“In Jewish tradition, courts imposing capital sentences have been viewed as bloodthirsty since the days of the sages,” Herschlag wrote. “Judaism, as a religion, values life above almost all else. … Justice must be tempered by mercy.”