Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter's troubled childhood began before he was born

 Five stars with names of people are next to flowers.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The father of synagogue shooter Robert Bowers pushed his mother down a flight of stairs, and she suffered a concussion as a result when she was eight months pregnant with Bowers, according to a report from the prosecution's expert witness, Dr. Ryan Darby.

Bowers was convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshipers last month. During this second phase of his trial, the jury must decide whether or not they should be allowed to consider the death penalty. The key issue being disputed by lawyers from each side during this phase is whether Bowers had the ability to form an intent to kill, as defined by the court.

Prosecutors called Darby, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University, to testify Wednesday in order to rebut previous expert testimony from defense experts who said that Bowers had brain abnormalities and suffered from schizophrenia and delusions. Those experts also maintained that these psychological problems left Bowers unable to form the intent required for a jury to consider him for the death penalty.

Darby interviewed Bowers for more than three hours in May and reviewed his medical and personal records before writing a report on his findings on June 12. Darby testified Wednesday that he concluded in his report that he didn’t believe Bowers suffered from delusions or that his criminal acts could be attributed to a brain abnormality.

During cross-examination Wednesday, defense lawyers asked Darby if he had left out or de-emphasized information from his notes in his report that implied Bowers may have had neurological problems.

On Thursday, defense lawyers continued to focus on Bowers’ traumatic early childhood and asked Darby whether those events in his life potentially could have been the source for or evidence of a brain abnormality.

In his report, Darby said that Bowers had a normal birth but that his mother was reportedly admitted to a hospital for treatment of postpartum depression when he was 2 or 3 months old. At 6 months old, the Office of Children, Youth and Families reported threats of suicidal gestures from both his mother and father. When the office followed up, Bowers' mother said she had moved out of the home she’d shared with Bowers' father and was now living with Bowers separately. His mother's therapist said that Bowers' mother didn't present a danger to Bowers.

Bowers reportedly began to sit, crawl and walk at normal stages of development, according to Darby’s report. But after Bower’s mother was hospitalized again for a week when he was about 2 years old, some of his speech skills regressed. Darby wrote that Bowers had "high-pitched squeaks but no babble, jargon, or intelligible speech" other than “ma-ma and da-da.”

The defense lawyers asked Darby if this deficit was a sign of some kind of brain injury. Darby said a speech deficit could be a symptom, but he added that Bowers didn't appear to show any other language deficits for the next 48 years and so that didn't appear to be the case.

At 1.5 years old, Bowers was brought to the emergency department at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh after ingesting two of his mother's pills. A month later, he was brought back to the hospital after swallowing an alkaline substance that led to difficulty swallowing.

Previous testimony in the trial referenced troubles in Bowers' childhood at ages 10 and 13, and Darby’s testimony Thursday added additional detail.

At age 13, Bowers used a lit aerosol can to threaten another boy in the neighborhood, according to Darby's report. He then was admitted to the Bradley Center Residential Care program, where Darby said his problems with impulsivity, social interaction and self-esteem showed improvement. But while he was there, Bowers started a small fire and tore apart a textbook, Darby noted in his report.

During a stay at McKeesport Hospital, a CT scan of Bowers’ brain showed no abnormalities, according to Darby’s report. But Bowers was prescribed an antipsychotic and "was diagnosed with chronic depression, an adolescent adjustment reaction and a homicide attempt. A possibility of incipient schizophrenia could not be ruled out definitively,” he wrote.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Defining ‘delusions’

Defense lawyers asked Darby whether Bowers' homicidal act at the Tree of Life synagogue was itself a symptom of a neurological disease. Darby responded that criminal behavior can sometimes be a symptom of a neurological disease, but he didn't find that to be the case with Bowers. Darby later clarified that if this wasn’t the case, every criminal act would be "absolved of responsibility due to some brain malfunction."

During cross-examination Wednesday, defense lawyers asked Darby about the definition of "delusions" he used in concluding that Bowers didn't suffer from delusions. Darby said that he used his own definition and not the definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by psychiatrists to diagnose patients.

Darby clarified during redirect questions from prosecutors Thursday morning that, although not drawn from the DSM, the definition of delusion he used was consistent with that of other experts in the field and definitions from other professional sources, such as the American Psychological Association.

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.