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Judge blocks effort to move Tree of Life trial outside western Pennsylvania — for now

The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
On Friday, March 18, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said publicity following the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting was not so "relentless, saturating, and blatantly prejudicial" against the defendant as to warrant a change of trial venue.

A federal judge has denied a bid to change the location of the death penalty trial for the Baldwin man accused in the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting. But in an order issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville left open the possibility that he could reverse the decision as the proceeding develops.

Defendant Robert Bowers had requested a change of trial venue in January. His attorneys argued that negative pre-trial publicity would prevent him from receiving a fair hearing in the U.S. District Court for western Pennsylvania.

The defense team cited a survey of 1,150 jury-eligible residents that 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.

In addition, after reviewing more than 1,200 media stories, a jury expert enlisted by defense lawyers concluded that local news outlets had been unfair in covering the accused gunman.

But in an order issued Friday, Colville said there was no reason to move the trial outside of Pittsburgh.

“Under applicable standards, the publicity at issue does not present the type of relentless, saturating, and blatantly prejudicial exposure that warrants the relief sought,” the judge wrote.

He noted that the attack took place more than three years ago and that a trial date has yet to be set.

“Publicity has diminished since the date of the attack,” Colville wrote. “A close review of the newspaper articles filed of record reveals that initially feverish media attention has cooled markedly over time, in both tone and frequency.”

Colville also noted that prosecutors have permission to present evidence of anti-Semitic statements Bowers allegedly made as police took him into custody following the shooting. The defendant had tried to suppress that evidence even though the media had already reported on it. In January, the retired judge who initially presided over the case, Donetta Ambrose, ruled that government attorneys may inform jurors of the alleged statements.

On Friday, Colville suggested that, through a careful selection process, the court could assemble an impartial jury from western Pennsylvania. But he added that he could revisit his decision “if circumstances suggest that the ability to empanel a fair and impartial jury has been compromised.”

The alleged shooter is accused of killing 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. The victims included members of three congregations that met at the site: Dor Hadash, Tree of Life — Or L'Simcha, and New Light. The attack is believed to be the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history.

Federal prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty against the defendant. 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.