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Why hasn’t the accused Tree of Life shooter gone to trial yet?

Keith Srakocic
It's been three years since a gunman attacked Squirrel Hill's Tree of Life synagogue in what is considered to be the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. History. The accused shooter faces the death penalty, but the case has yet to go to trial.

Wednesday marks three years since a Baldwin man was charged in the killing of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. But Robert Bowers’ federal death penalty trial won’t begin until next year at the earliest.

While the wait is unusually long, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, a well-known opponent of the death penalty, said it’s difficult to assess whether it’s justified.

“In this case, the hate crimes provisions are untested. There's some question about whether the Biden administration is really committed to the death penalty and whether they even want to go forward. And then [add] the pandemic on top of all that,” said Ledewitz.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose extended the deadline for pretrial motions in the accused gunman’s prosecution until Jan. 18, citing the complexity of the case.

The defendants’ lawyers had requested the extra time, and although prosecutors didn’t oppose it, they said in a court filing this month that “further extensions should not be necessary.”

The government’s attorneys have previously complained about the delays. Over the last three years, the defense has raised numerous objections over evidence and court procedures and also asked for more time to manage the threat of COVID-19.

Ledewitz said death penalty cases typically don’t take much longer than a year to go to trial. He said it’s almost always the instinct of defense attorneys to stall the cases for as long as possible to keep their clients alive.

In this case, that impulse might pay off, Ledewitz said: President Biden has said he opposes the death penalty, and this summer U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland suspended federal executions pending further review.

“Hoping for a change in administration might very well have been a strategy of the defense,” Ledewitz said. “They're better off than they were under the Trump Administration in terms of the death penalty.”

Hate crimes charges that the government has filed against the defendant could further slow the case, Ledewitz said. The standard for proving that religious or ethnic animus motivated an offense is exceptionally high, and defense attorneys have sought to block prosecutors from presenting evidence that Bowers made antisemitic statements in the aftermath of the attack. Ambrose has yet to rule on the question.

It’s much less common at the federal level than in state courts for prosecutors to try death penalty cases, Ledewitz noted. So, he said, lack of experience could also contribute to the slow pace of the suspected synagogue shooter’s case.

Adding to the complexity, Ledewtiz said, some congregants who worshipped at Tree of Life have asked the justice department to drop its pursuit of the death penalty. They’ve raised religious objections as well as their desire to avoid the protracted court proceedings that accompany capital cases.

“It's ironic, but one of the great costs of the death penalty in our celebrity culture is that we have to hear about the defendant all the time,” Ledewitz said. “We don't want to hear about him. We want him to disappear from our consciousness. And that is made harder by the death penalty.”

The worshippers who oppose the government’s effort to execute the alleged shooter have said they would prefer a life sentence instead. Defense lawyers have said their client is willing to plead guilty in exchange for that punishment — an outcome that is guaranteed to happen if the government ends up abandoning its capital case, according to Ledewitz.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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