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Courts & Justice

Jury can hear statements Tree of Life defendant allegedly made after the 2018 attack

tree_of_life.jpg
Keith Srakocic
/
AP
Police officers allege that the accused Tree of Life synagogue shooter made anti-Semitic statements while they took him into custody following the attack.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that a jury may hear evidence about statements accused Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers is alleged to have made at the crime scene and later at a hospital.

Defense lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose in October 2020 to suppress the statements, which police said the accused gunman made following the 2018 attack.

The evidence includes anti-Semitic statements that Bowers allegedly made as officers sought to coax him out of a synagogue classroom where he had barricaded himself. Such utterances could prove to be critical in the prosecution’s effort to persuade jurors to convict the defendant of hate crimes.

Bowers faces more than 60 federal charges stemming from the attack, in which 11 people died.

His attorneys have contended that police gathered information from Bowers in violation of his right to remain silent and to consult with a lawyer.

But in her opinion Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose dismissed that argument, finding that officers acted properly in an “extremely chaotic and dangerous” situation.

“Statements made by a defendant during a custodial interrogation are generally inadmissible at trial and are presumed to have been compelled if the defendant had not been advised of his Miranda rights,” Ambrose wrote.

But, she added: “Questions reasonably prompted by a concern for public safety constitute an exception to Miranda requirements.”

“Here, law enforcement officers faced an imminent threat to public safety, beginning the moment the dispatcher announced the first 911 calls at 9:55 a.m. through the time [detectives] left Bowers at the hospital,” the judge said.

She noted that as the situation unfolded, officers did not know whether another active shooter was present at the synagogue or if the defendant had planted an explosive device.

In her opinion, Ambrose also rejected the defense team’s contentions that Bowers made statements to police involuntarily or that he was entitled to privacy protections when receiving medical care in the presence of law enforcement.

A trial date has yet to be set. On Monday, defense attorneys asked the court to move the proceeding to a venue outside western Pennsylvania. Unfavorable pretrial publicity, they said, would prevent their client from receiving a fair trial in Pittsburgh.