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Psychologist says 'psychotic' Pittsburgh synagogue shooter also drove by JCC on morning of attack

A courtroom sketch.
David Klug
In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, confers with his legal team on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. Bowers has been convicted of all of the 63 federal charges he faced in the shootings, which claimed the lives of worshipers from three congregations who were sharing the building, Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.

The convicted Pittsburgh synagogue shooter was “blatantly psychotic” during the 2018 attack that left 11 Jewish worshipers dead and six other people wounded, an expert witness for the defense testified Thursday.

As part of the second phase of defendant Robert Bowers’ trial, defense lawyers are arguing that Bowers was severely mentally ill at the time of the attack and therefore wasn’t able to form the kind of intent to kill required to impose a death-penalty sentence.

Psychologist and University of North Texas psychology professor Richard Rogers evaluated Bowers on two separate occasions last fall as part of the defense’s effort to establish Bowers’ mental state at the time of the attack.

Rogers went into greater detail about Bowers’ time in a series of psychiatric hospitals at age 13, first introduced in testimony Wednesday. In September 1985, Bowers spent more than two weeks in McKeesport Hospital after potentially attempting to take his own life and spraying aerosol at his mother before attempting to ignite it. He was diagnosed then with depression and “chronic and adolescent adjustment reaction.”

That October, Bowers was moved to the adolescent unit at Southwood Psychiatric Hospital. After acting with antagonism toward staff and seeming to regress, he was transferred to the more structured and controlled children’s unit.

Rogers, who did not treat Bowers at the time but later evaluated his medical records from that period, said Bowers responded well to antidepressant medications.

Bowers was next transferred to The Bradley Center in Robinson, where the staff helps children who have experienced trauma and mental illness. He continued to respond to treatment and developed “appropriate” reactions to authority, but he still “presented as [a] quiet, withdrawn youth with fear and anxiety,” Rogers said.

“He absolutely did not want to go home,” Rogers said, but he was discharged in June 1986. Bowers spent a total of 10 consecutive months in the three institutions.

In September and November 2022, Rogers gave Bowers a number of psychological tests, including questionnaires designed to gauge if a subject is giving genuine responses and an assessment meant to help determine if a person is suffering from mental illness.

Bowers’ responses indicated that he was likely telling the truth about his symptoms, Rogers said.

Rogers also evaluated Bowers for schizophrenia and said he “clearly manifested symptoms of schizophrenia.” The exact onset of symptoms was unclear, but Rogers said they were “clearly present” by spring 2018.

Bowers was fixated on the upcoming end of his car lease, which was scheduled to expire on Oct. 27, 2018. He didn’t want to renew the lease and decided he needed to act before then.

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Rogers stressed that the tests cannot be used to definitively diagnose schizophrenia but are one tool used to arrive at a diagnosis.

Bowers showed symptoms of schizophrenia, including “persecutory and nihilistic delusions” that “Jews are responsible for invaders entering the United States and destroying white persons,” Rogers said.

Bowers believed he should be lauded for what he called “attack day” and his efforts to “save the white race.” He saw himself as a warrior, according to Rogers.

“[Bowers felt] hurt that there was no parade for him, for his warrior-like behavior. He really expected there should be some [accolades] as a result of this,” Rogers said. “This is clearly grossly psychotic thinking.”

Rogers said Bowers’ extreme focus on planning and committing the attack distinguished him from white supremacists who don’t act on their beliefs and reinforced the strength of his delusions.

“This is spending months of your life thinking about, looking at targets, planning and expecting that you will be appreciated for your achievement, and that strikes me as being grossly psychotic,” Rogers said.

Bowers told Rogers he had three main goals in carrying out the synagogue attack: to kill Jewish people, who he believed were committing “genocide” against white people; to scare people who might otherwise want to commit those acts as well; and to attract others to his mission.

He was clearly a “goal-oriented person capable of planning something,” Rogers said, later adding that Bowers mentioned wanting to make “messy shots” that would cause grievous injury and be most difficult for others to view.

Rogers concluded that Bowers was “blatantly psychotic” and was suffering from “severe” schizophrenia at the time of the attack. Bowers’ delusions made him believe his actions were not only morally correct but necessary, Rogers added.

Prosecutors argue that Bowers was methodical and calculated in the leadup to the attack and during the shooting, thus demonstrating his intent.

On cross-examination, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan asked Rogers if he believed Bowers was incapable of forming the intent to kill anyone.

“I don’t believe that was my testimony,” Rogers responded.

In a series of structured and unstructured interviews, Bowers told Rogers he began planning the attack in April 2018. Bowers considered multiple other targets, including Jewish individuals and organizations, before narrowing it down to the Tree of Life synagogue or a local Jewish Community Center — seemingly referencing the Squirrel Hill location, Rogers said.

On the day of the attack, Bowers drove to the synagogue and saw five people in the lobby. He then drove to the JCC nearby but decided he couldn’t attack both because of the police station a few blocks away in the neighborhood. He also decided that “killing kids was not good optics,” Rogers testified.

Bowers didn’t share his plans with friends or family, or on the far-right social media site Gab, but he planned extensively, Rogers said. He noted that Bowers had been “very worried” that his plans would be discovered before he carried them out.

Bowers referenced another synagogue shooting where the perpetrator’s weapon jammed and told Rogers he wanted to minimize the chances of that happening to him, so he practiced and tested his weapons ahead of time. He planned to do “tactical reloads,” deleted some of his Gab content and set his six computer hard drives to erase if he didn’t return home within 200 minutes.

Discussing the attack with Rogers in 2022, Bowers said he was “pleased” with what he did. He used an antisemitic phrase to describe the crime, saying he killed a “Yiddish dozen” of 11 people. Bowers also told Rogers he still had a sense of disappointment after the attack because “I wish I shot more.”

Rogers testified that he did not extensively research some of the antisemitic and white supremacist conspiracy theories Bowers referenced during their interviews before he decided that Bowers was “unable to make the connections I think a rational person would make.”

Olshan pointed out that, while Bowers’ views are illogical, they’re also held by many other white supremacists who haven’t been clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia. Prosecutors also disagreed with Rogers’ assessments of Bowers’ mental health exams.

Rogers will finish his testimony on Friday.

Later in the day, prosecution witness and Butler County Prison corrections officer Michael Williams testified about Bowers’ behavior in custody. Williams said Bowers communicates easily and seems to understand and follow directions. He keeps his cell neat and orderly and has an established routine, the officer said.

“As far as inmates go, he’s a very easy inmate to look after,” Williams said.

Williams also testified that he has never been told that Bowers has epilepsy, nor has he seen Bowers have a “violent, shaking” seizure. Bowers has not been prescribed medication during his time in prison.

During cross-examination of Williams, however, defense lawyer Elisa Long noted that there are multiple forms of seizures and that a person can have a seizure and not know it.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at