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Guilt phase of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial begins today. Here's what you need to know.

The exterior of the Federal Courthouse in Pittsburgh
Gene J. Puskar
This is the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Monday April 24, 2023.

More than four-and-a-half years after Robert Bowers allegedly walked into the Tree of Life synagogue — where members of the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations were gathered at the time — and killed 11 Jewish worshipers on Oct. 27, 2018, the guilt phase of his federal trial is set to begin Tuesday morning in Downtown Pittsburgh. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will have a chance to begin their opening arguments in a trial that is expected to last two months.

The court began looking for potential jurors in March, sending out and receiving back more than 1,100 questionnaires. The court then interviewed more than 200 people in-person, before whittling down the jury pool to 12 jurors and six alternates last week. Those 18 jurors will be given extensive instructions about their role as the trial gets underway this morning.

If Bowers is found guilty, those jury members will have to decide whether or not he deserves the death penalty.

Prosecutors have said Bowers made antisemitic comments at the scene of the attack and online.

In proceedings before and during juror questioning, the defense has done little to cast doubt on whether Bowers was the gunman, instead focusing on preventing his execution.

Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down. Bowers’ defense attorneys also recently said he has schizophrenia and brain impairments.

As an indication that the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial seems almost a foregone conclusion, Bowers' defense team spent little time in the jury selection process asking how potential jurors would come to a verdict.

Instead the team focused on the penalty phase and how jurors would decide whether to impose the death penalty in a case of a man charged with hate-motivated killings in a house of worship. The defense probed whether potential jurors could consider factors such as mental illness or a difficult childhood.

The families of those killed are divided over whether the government should pursue the death penalty, but most have voiced support for it.

The trial is taking place in the downtown Pittsburgh courthouse of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, presided over by Judge Robert Colville, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

Prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements Bowers allegedly made to investigators, an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred, and the guns recovered from him at the crime scene where police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.

Prosecutors indicated in court filings that they might introduce autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were subsequently shot to death. They have said their evidence includes a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock .357 handguns and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets and bullet fragments.

Bowers also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.

In a filing earlier this year, prosecutors said Bowers “harbored deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.

Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Bowers had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”

The three congregations have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the shootings. The Tree of Life Congregation also is working with partners on plans to overhaul its current structure, which still stands but has been closed since the shootings, by creating a complex to house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.

The death penalty trial is proceeding three years after now-President Joe Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold death sentences that have been issued and, in some cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.

More WESA coverage of the trial:

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.