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Judge gives no hints of when Tree of Life shooting trial is expected to begin next year

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Eleven worshippers were killed in the 2018 attack, which is believed to represent the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history.

Attorneys met with a federal judge Monday to discuss the capital trial stemming from the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill, but there are no new signs of when jury selection will commence.

Defendant Robert Bowers has been charged with more than 60 federal offenses, including hate crimes, obstruction of religious belief and the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. The attack took place during Shabbat morning services Oct. 27, 2018, killing 11 worshippers.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said in June that he expects the trial to begin sometime between March and June 2023. He noted Monday, however, that additional briefings by the attorneys could change his thinking.

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In a joint filing last week, government and defense lawyers agreed that whenever it begins, the trial will last approximately three months with a one or two-week recess between the verdict and any sentencing phase. But while prosecutors advocated for a March start date, the defense said it remains too early to commit.

On Monday, defense attorney Judy Clarke said it would be better to wait until December to set a date. By that point, she said, litigants will have a better sense of how much longer they will need to resolve disagreements over evidence, jury selection and other pre-trial matters.

The defense team noted Monday that it now plans to ask Colville to dismiss 25 counts that charge the alleged gunman with using a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime. A federal judge denied that request in October 2020, but Bowers’ attorneys said recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions could warrant a new ruling.

Clarke said that COVID-19 should also give Colville pause in setting a trial date. The virus has sidelined defense investigators for weeks at a time, she said.

“We are sympathetic to the delays in this case, but most of them are not of our own making,” she said. She cautioned against “just plucking some dates out of the air that we think are dangerous to set.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song noted that the victims of the synagogue attack have now waited nearly four years for the trial to begin.

“Any additional delay beyond March of 2023 really does flout the Crime Victims Rights Act and its assurance of proceedings that are free from unreasonable delay,” she said. “Further delay would compound the harm to … those victims who had family members killed on October 27 of 2018, as well as victims who survived the events that day.”

Song also said that any expert and forensic analysis yet to be completed is not especially complicated. Nor is it central to determining whether Bowers is guilty, she said.

“This is one defendant. The activity was focused on one day. And to be frank, there is not a mystery as to who were the impacted parties on October 27, 2018,” she said.

But federal public defender Michael Novara noted that, even if Colville waits until December to schedule the trial, “that's still three months prior to the March date that the government is proposing. And there will be plenty of time, plenty of advance notice to everyone involved.”

Colville was receptive to both sides’ arguments. He agreed with the defense that it would be a mistake to choose a date prematurely and thus run the risk of being forced to postpone the proceeding.

“And I'm not insensitive to COVID,” he added, “but we are almost four years out [from the shooting].”

He declined Monday to say when he will announce a date.

“I can assure you once I'm comfortable after talking to my staff and doing some homework that this feels right, I'll probably sleep on it one night. And then we'll let you know as soon as we know that we're confident we’ve got a trial date,” he told the attorneys.

“I may not have that feeling until December or later,” he said. “So I'm not trying to telegraph anything or signal anything in any way.”

He scheduled another meeting with the lawyers on Oct. 6 to discuss the status of the case.