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Jury finds Pittsburgh synagogue shooter eligible for the death penalty

This courtroom sketch depicts Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of the 2018 synagogue massacre, on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh.
David Klug
This courtroom sketch depicts Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of the 2018 synagogue massacre, on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh.

Convicted Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers is eligible for the death penalty.

A jury made that determination Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in Downtown Pittsburgh. Bowers' trial will now move into a final phase on Monday; jurors will be tasked with determining whether Bowers should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Last month, the same jury found Bowers, 50, guilty on 63 counts, including murder and hate crime charges related to the October 2018 shooting that left 11 Jewish worshipers dead and several other people wounded at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. The shooting is believed to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Jurors deliberated in this phase for approximately 90 minutes after beginning shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday. They announced they had reached a verdict around 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

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The key issue during this second phase of Bowers’ trial was whether he formed an intent to kill. A key part of the argument for both prosecutors and defense attorneys was that Bowers doesn’t appear to have shown remorse and instead regrets that he didn’t kill more people.

Prosecutors argued that this shows how clear his intent to kill continues to be. Bowers’ lawyers said that proves he suffers from a mental illness — schizophrenia — of which a defining feature is that beliefs are resistant to change.

The government is seeking the death penalty for Robert Bowers, who raged against Jewish people online before storming the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons. A truck driver from suburban Baldwin, Bowers killed members of three congregations who had gathered at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. He also wounded two worshippers and four police officers.

The jury agreed with prosecutors that Bowers — who spent six months planning the attack and has since expressed regret that he didn't kill more people — had formed the requisite legal intent to kill.

Bowers' lawyers, however, argued that his ability to form intent was impaired by mental illness and a delusional belief that he could stop a genocide of white people by killing Jews.

The jurors found among other things that Bowers intended to kill, that substantial planning went into the attack, and that he targeted vulnerable and elderly victims. Bowers showed little emotion as the verdict was read.

The jury decided that Bowers had committed all four kinds of aggravating factors with which he had been charged; to be considered for the death penalty, the jury needed to find he had committed only one of these four factors.

The eligibility phase of Bowers' trial began on June 26. Jurors heard weeks of technical testimony about Bowers' psychological and neurological states, with mental health experts for both sides disagreeing on whether he has schizophrenia, delusions or brain disorders that played a role in the rampage.

Bowers ranted incessantly on social media about his hatred of Jewish people before the synagogue attack and told police at the scene that "all these Jews need to die." Bowers told psychiatric experts who testified during the trial that he had been planning the shooting for months, had considered other possible Jewish targets, other methods of killing inside the synagogue and other days to act. But he ultimately decided on using his AR-15 on a Saturday morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue because he thought that offered the best chance of furthering his aim of stopping Jewish people from diluting the white race.

Aggravating and mitigating factors

The sentencing now shifts to a more emotional stage, with jurors expected to hear about the pain and trauma Bowers inflicted on worshippers in the heart of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.

“It has been nearly five years since 11 people were taken from us. They were beloved and valued family members, friends and neighbors. They cannot speak for themselves, and so their family members will speak for them, “ said Maggie Feinstein, director of the, 10.27 Healing Partnership, a support group for those affected by the synagogue shooting and others who have experienced the effects of trauma from hate-based violence,

“In the next phase of the trial, our justice system will perform its duty to listen to their voices,” Feinstein said in a statement following the verdict. “We support them, and we stand with them.”

The prosecution will also present evidence about other aggravating factors — including that the victims were elderly and Bowers' rampage was motivated by religious hatred — while the defense will present mitigating factors that might persuade jurors to spare his life. The defense case could include pleas from his relatives as well as additional testimony about his traumatic childhood.

Bowers’ attorneys offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors refused, opting instead to take the case to trial and pursue the death penalty. Most of the victims' families supported that decision. Some shooting victims and relatives of others who died in the shooting were in the courtroom Thursday to hear the jury verdict on Bowers’ eligibility for death-penalty consideration.

If jurors decide Bowers deserves to die, it would be the first federal death sentence imposed during Joe Biden's presidency. Biden campaigned on a pledge to end capital punishment, but federal prosecutors continue to pursue the death penalty in some cases.

The final phase of the trial is expected to last between two to three weeks. To send Bowers to death row, jurors will have to agree unanimously that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated: July 13, 2023 at 12:59 PM EDT
This story has been updated with additional detail and background.
Updated: July 13, 2023 at 11:33 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional information about legal arguments during testimony and other information.
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.
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