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Synagogue shooter had a history of suicide attempts, involuntary commitments

A courtroom sketch of Robert Bowers.
David Klug
In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, convicted of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, is on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

The man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshipers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 had a history of six suicide attempts and multiple involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals, according to documents presented in court Wednesday.

Defense lawyers for Robert Bowers are trying to prove in the second phase of his trial, or "eligibility phase," that he didn't have the mental capacity to form the kind of intent to kill that is a requirement for a death-penalty sentence.

The lead defense witness on Wednesday, neuropsychologist Dr. Siddhartha Nadkarni, likened Bower’s misperception of the world to that of someone who believes they see a snake in the closet and hits it with a shovel, only to find out later that it was just a piece of rope.

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Under cross-examination, prosecutors criticized Nadkarni for not asking Bowers about his antisemitic beliefs or exploring the possibility that those beliefs were genuine and not based on a delusion.

“If he thought that the Jews were responsible for replacing white people by bringing in immigrants, that's the framework, that is his snake, you would expect him to be consistent in talking about it with people, correct?” U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan asked Nadkarni.

Chaotic home life

Nadkarni walked the court through several documents in Bower's medical history, including a reference to an attempted suicide at age 10.

During Bowers’ interview with Nadkarni, Bowers had told Nadkarni that he had a normal childhood until he was 9, and then his life became “a problem” full of “conflict.” Bowers said his home life was so chaotic that he didn’t sleep well and fell asleep at school. During an interview in 2021, Bowers told Nadkarni that Bowers’ mom was “constantly riding him.”

At age 13, Bowers threw a flammable liquid at his mother and attempted to ignite it before threatening to kill himself, according to a document about his stay at McKeesport Hospital in 1985. (The defense lawyers asked only about Bowers’ threat of suicide, but the violence towards his mother was visible in the hospital document presented in court.)

Bowers told Nadkarni during a 2021 evaluation that he attempted suicide twice. At age 17, Bowers tried to drink grain alcohol but then set himself on fire when a cigarette ignited the alcohol on his arm. He passed out, and the incident scarred his arm.

In 2004, he put a shotgun to his mouth and then called police, in part because he was afraid he was going to be evicted and hungry. He was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric care.

“He simultaneously told me was depressed and worried about his housing situation and was going to be homeless,” Nadkarni said.

In another psychological examination, Bowers said he attempted suicide when he was 17 by taking pills. In 1990, a police report showed he had been admitted to the former St. Francis Hospital because of frequent suicide attempts.

Another psychological report stated that Bowers, at age 33, seemed “depressed, with anxiety,” and was prescribed antidepressants and referred for additional psychological evaluation.

Nadkarni said he found evidence of schizophrenic hallucinations during his 2021 examination of Bowers, including Bowers’ belief that the ink from his clothes would enter into his body and then return through the bracelet on his arm. Bowers also expressed a belief that the bracelet would get redder as the month went on, Nadkarni said.

When Bowers was five years old and had a fever of 105 degrees, he reported having conversations with people who weren't there and hallucinations, according to a medical report made at the time.

Bowers also talked without normal emotional affect, and when asked about important people in his life, he focused on small details — such as a person's ATM code — rather than more important aspects of that person or their relationship, Nadkarni said.

“It’s a sign of psychosis, that loss of affect,” he testified.

In addition, Nadkarni wrote in his post-examination report: “His memory is very detail-oriented and very visual. His memory shows a very aberrant sense of salience and what's important. He can't see the forest, he just knows details of pictures.”

Nadkarni also said that Bowers had problems with abstraction and showed signs of a problem with the front part of his brain, which controls executive function.

“Robert is thought-disordered. His thinking is restricted and abnormally detailed. He is hyper-focused on numbers, computers,” he wrote in his report.

Bower’s neurological examination showed evidence of damage to the front of his brain, Nadkarni testified. For example, Bowers had a specific reflex found in infants — in which scratching the palm results in a twitch in the chin — that usually goes away in adulthood, he said. This reflex, when found in adults, is typical in people with brain damage from dementia, he said.

Nadkarni’s final diagnosis: "To a reasonable degree of medical certainty, it is my opinion that Mr. Bowers is a person with schizophrenia and epilepsy, and that these are long-standing conditions, rendering him incapable of assessing risks and consequences of his behavior, nor making appropriate judgements in its regard."

Intent to kill

During cross-examination, Olshan asked Nadkarni directly if he believed Bowers was capable of forming the intent to kill anyone.

“Was there someone in there to make a decision to inhibit his behavior? I don't think there was somebody in there who could choose to do something differently in this brain,” Nadkarni said.

He also said he didn’t believe Bowers had someone “to say that I’m not going to do this because it’s wrong. I don’t think that person is in that brain…I don’t think there is somebody there who could decide any other way.”

When pressed by Olshan about whether Bowers could make a plan and carry it out, Nadkarni replied, “I don't think there was a choice being made here. Meaning, I don't think there was an ability to make a choice. I think 'choice' is the wrong word to use.”

Olshan asked Nadkarni why his evaluation didn’t include any of Bowers' comments about the shooting or his other antisemitic remarks, including references to Jews killing children for blood and a white girl being killed by an immigrant. Nadkarni said he didn’t ask Bowers much about the synagogue shooting and didn’t believe the comments were necessary for the diagnosis he was making.

Olshan also questioned whether Nadkarni’s report was based on only one example of a delusion. Nadkarni said that he believed that Bowers’ “psychotic obsession” with remembering numbers such as his family’s passwords was “subtly delusional."

Olshan asked if “subtly delusional” was a clinical term.

"If I could tell you the password for my email account in college, would that be something that is subtly delusional?” Olshan asked.

Olshan also questioned Nadkarni about Bower’s substance use, including when he told a hospital that he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years and told Nadkarni that he had tried drugs including cocaine, marijuana, and acid. Bowers also told Nadkarni that he’d treated back pain with heroin and passed out from drinking in the past. Nadkarni agreed that this kind of consumption could impact some of the white matter found in the MRI scans discussed in testimony Tuesday.

When Olshan asked Nadkarni whether he believed Bowers should be taking medication for his condition, Nadkarni said he had recommended it to Bowers’ attorneys. But according to Olshan, Bowers doesn’t currently take any medication.

Olshan brought up a suicide evaluation of Bowers three days after the synagogue shooting in 2018 and highlighted that Bowers said he was doing “fine” at the time. Nadkarni said that he believed, in the context of planning and committing such a shooting, that this statement was more evidence of Bowers’ disordered thinking.

"I am going to probably be here for ever, but at least in here I do not have to worry about food," Bowers told the examiner at the time.

Updated: June 28, 2023 at 6:17 PM EDT
Updated with additional comments from the neuropsychologist and details of Bowers' life.
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.