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Synagogue shooter denied being driven by delusions, wished for more victims, expert says

Ammunition Robert Bowers left in his car on the day of the shooting.
U.S District Court Western District Of Pennsylvania
Ammunition Robert Bowers left in his car on the day of the shooting. Bowers told prosecution witness Dr. Ryan Darby that he also planned to target the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, and initially had divided his ammunition for use at each of the two targets but then forgot to combine it when he settled on one target. In retrospect, he said he regretted leaving the extra ammunition in his car.

Listen to the defendant’s own words.

That was one of the main themes of the prosecution’s first expert witnesses to testify Wednesday about Robert Bowers’ mental health as prosecutors began to rebut defense expert testimony in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial.

Bowers’ defense lawyers rested their case Wednesday morning after five days of testimony that they said proves that Bowers didn’t have the ability to form the requisite intent to kill that would make him eligible for the death penalty.

His lawyers called to the stand a number of neurological and psychological experts to suggest that brain abnormalities and epileptic deformities were at the root of a schizophrenia disorder, which led to delusions that took away Bowers’ ability to meaningfully decide against carrying out the shooting. Bowers was convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshipers and injuring six others during an attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.

Dr. Ryan Darby, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University who leads the university’s fronto-temporal dementia clinic, was hired by the prosecution and interviewed Bowers for more than three hours in May, shortly before the guilt phase of the trial began.

Darby’s testimony indicated that Bowers himself doesn’t believe the diagnoses of the defense witnesses. Bowers denied having delusions, remembered no evidence of any epileptic seizures and offered rational explanations for much of the evidence that defense witnesses used to paint him as incapable of intentionally committing mass murder in 2018, Darby said.

Darby concluded that Bowers could form an intent to kill another person and that his antisemitic beliefs were genuine and not rooted in brain malfunctions.

"In my opinion they are not delusional and they are not the result of a neurological disease," he said.

After looking over Bower’s MRI, PET and EEG brain tests, Darby said Bowers’ brain appeared largely normal to him. The only abnormality appeared to be small white regions in his brain, but Darby said these were “very common” in patients and are typically associated with vascular disease.

Bowers’ history as a “lifelong smoker” would be one of the most likely explanations for the vascular disease that caused the brain abnormalities. Darby also testified that, after a back injury during a job at a bakery, Bowers began to take prescription opioids and sometimes heroin when he couldn’t obtain prescription pills.

A scan of Robert Bowers' brain.
U.S District Court Western District Of Pennsylvania
Both defense and prosecution expert witnesses acknowledge that Robert Bowers' brain had white matter abnormalities, like the ones identified here in a defense expert report. The prosecution's expert witness said Wednesday these abnormalities are common and could be caused by Bowers' smoking.

It was normal for Bowers to alternate between periods of working for a trucking company and then not working. Bowers told Darby that he made good money as a trucker but that he had to be on the road six days per week, so he often took time off and lived off his savings. When Bowers attacked the synagogue in 2018 he had been unemployed since 2017 and living off his savings. Bowers said this was typical, Darby testified.

Bowers spent around five years caring for his elderly grandfather, according to Darby. He even showed evidence of sophisticated abstract thought, sometimes using analogies to illustrate his points.

Darby said Bowers even had explanations for some of his past behavior that the defense experts described as suicidal. Bowers said he was fired from a bakery job in 2004 after 14 years for stealing money and, as a result, was going to lose his ability to stay in the apartment above the bakery for free. Bowers told Darby that he called the police and told them he was suicidal because he wanted to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a few days in order to figure out his next living situation.

Bowers also said that the burns on his arms were not from a suicide atttempt when he was 17 but from passing out after drinking grain alcohol and then accidentally setting his arm on fire with a cigarette. Bowers did acknowledge a fascination with starting fires and creating bombs as a child, but it typically involved going to a junkyard to blow things up with friends.

“It was never directed toward individuals, toward harming persons or animals, [but] just for fun to blow things up with,” Darby said Bowers told him. He also showed an interest in guns and cars in childhood.

It was only as an adult around 2016 that Bowers’ became passionate about his antisemitic and white supremacist beliefs, Darby said. These beliefs were not delusional, Darby said, because they were not specific to him. Bowers wasn’t personally being targeted by Jewish and immigration groups, he said, and Darby said “one of the core features” of delusions is that they are “personally salient.” Bowers’ mind didn’t self-generate these ideas, but instead Bowers said he researched his views on the internet and decided they were correct, Darby said. And he became most animated about discussing these ideas.

Bowers also began showing interest in Christianity around 2015 and briefly attended church because he identified as a conservative and saw that other conservatives held Christian views. But Darby said Bowers was able to differentiate his Biblical belief in the “end of days” and his belief in “white replacement theory,” and he said they were not connected in his mind.

Bowers’ thought about targeting the refugee resettlement group HIAS directly, but thought it would be difficult because it would have more security and would be logistically challenging to carry out in a different state. So he focused on the local synagogue Dor Hadash, which supported HIAS. He learned when Dor Hadash worshiped and formed goals for his attack: He wanted to stop Jews from supporting HIAS further and to create awareness about the white supremacist “great replacement theory,” which suggests that majority white nations are being targeted in hopes of replacing their residents with other groups.

On the day of the shooting, Bowers told Darby he decided to target the Tree of Life Synagogue over the local Jewish Community Center because it would have a “higher yield.” Because a city police station is located between the two buildings, he didn’t think he could carry out attacks on both targets. Bowers said he initially had divided his ammunition for use at each of the two targets but then forgot to combine it when he settled on one target, and in retrospect, he regretted leaving the extra ammunition in his car.

During the shooting itself, Bowers told Darby he was focused and had time to make decisions. Bowers couldn’t remember the sequence of events well while recounting them, but he said at times when the shooting stopped it would be "eerily quiet" and “he would become more aware of the adrenaline going through him and he could feel his heart racing,” Darby said.

After the shooting was over, he said, he felt “in awe” of his accomplishment and compared it to the work of the Founding Fathers when they finished writing the U.S. Constitution. Bowers wished he could’ve done more research in order to have more victims and mentioned a news story in May of this year about how Dor Hadash continues to hold fundraisers for immigrants.

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Darby’s responses to questions also implied a criticism of several defense witnesses who said that they came to their conclusions without asking Bowers much about his actions at the synagogue in 2018. Darby said these questions were necessary.

“The entire purpose of the evaluation is to see if any of these diseases or behaviors they cause, are they relevant to his criminal actions,” he said.

Darby cast doubt on a key delusion to which defense witnesses referred as a belief that the ink from his clothing was passing through his body and into his wristband. Instead, Darby said Bowers told him “he didn’t know” if the dye was being absorbed by his skin.

Darby asked Bowers about another delusion attributed to him during an FBI interview of a man who used to live near Bowers when he worked at the bakery. The man told the FBI that Bowers used to believe that the United Nations was out to get him and he kept a shotgun by the door just in case. But Bowers told Darby that the U.N. would never target him individually and that if he was worried about an intruder he would keep the shotgun by his bed — not by the door.

During cross-examination, defense lawyer Michael Burt asked Darby whether Bowers’ reported belief that U.N. Soldiers were out to get him would be an example of the kind of delusional thinking that Darby said didn’t exist. Burt was able to get Darby to say that traumatic events, like the ones Bowers suffered — including that Bowers’ father committed suicide when he was six — could cause brain damage.

But Darby said Bowers denied the delusional belief reported by the FBI during his interview and, in general, Bowers denied having any symptoms at all.

“He doesn't believe that he has a disease,” Darby said.

Updated: July 5, 2023 at 5:29 PM EDT
Updates with additional info from the afternoon testimony
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.