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Accused Tree of Life synagogue shooter asks judge to move trial outside western Pennsylvania

Dave Klug
A trial date has yet to be set in the prosecution against accused Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers.

Attorneys have requested a new trial venue for the man charged in the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. In a motion filed Monday, they argued that negative media coverage prevents defendant Robert Bowers from receiving a fair hearing in western Pennsylvania.

The lawyers cited a survey of 1,150 jury-eligible residents that a jury expert led late last year. They study found that potential jurors in the Pittsburgh area were more negatively prejudiced toward the defendant than their counterparts elsewhere in the state and in the District of Columbia.

Among the 89% of local survey respondents who are familiar with the case, 92% believe the alleged shooter is guilty of murder, and 82% reported that he would have a hard time convincing them otherwise. Of the 54% of Pittsburgh-area respondents who favored the death penalty for the defendant, 86% said he would find it difficult to persuade them that he should not be sentenced to death.

The jury expert's review of more than 1,200 media stories, meanwhile, concluded that local news outlets have been unfair in covering the defendant.

“The coverage portrays Mr. Bowers as the government is expected to portray him at trial: as a hate-filled, violent extremist who promoted anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views shared by white supremacists and others on the far right,” the defense wrote in its motion.

“In reacting to the shooting,” it later added, “Pittsburgh took on the character of a small town coming together to support and honor the 37 victims [who were killed or at risk of being killed] and to denounce Mr. Bowers and his extremist views.”

“Although all mass shootings generate an outpouring of community support for the victims, the historical nature of the attack here is unique, creating ‘a unique bond between prospective jurors and the victims that does not exist in other venues,’” the filing said.

And as a result, it contended, “The burden of proof at trial and penalty phase has been shifted to Mr. Bowers, with a majority of potential jurors holding a fixed opinion that Mr. Bowers is guilty and should be sentenced to death.”

The defendant is accused of killing 11 worshippers in what is believed to be the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history. He faces more than 60 federal charges, including hate crimes offenses, obstruction of religious belief and the use of a firearm during a crime of violence.

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.

Federal prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty over the objections of some congregants.

The defendants’ lawyers said it’s especially important to relocate the trial considering that their client could be sentenced to death.

“Given the absolute finality of the death penalty, there is a ‘heightened need for reliability’ in capital cases [that jurors are impartial],” they wrote in their motion.

At a routine status conference Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said her office will submit a response to defense attorneys’ attempt to change trial venues.

It is unknown which judge will rule on the matter. The current presiding judge, Donetta Ambrose, plans to retire Feb. 1, and her cases will be reassigned at random to other federal judges in western Pennsylvania.

Ambrose said Tuesday that she could issue an opinion this week on a separate defense motion that seeks to stop prosecutors from presenting evidence at trial of statements the defendant made after police officers shot him at the crime scene and when paramedics treated him for gunshot wounds to the leg and shoulder.

A trial date has yet to be determined.