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Pittsburgh synagogue jury will decide death penalty based on 2 kinds of stories

 A large stone building in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Gene J. Puskar
This is the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Monday April 24, 2023. The federal jury trial of the suspect in the nation's deadliest antisemitic attack is underway, four and a half years after the shooting deaths of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Robert Bowers grew up an only child in a chaotic, violent and unstable home.

Richard Gottfried grew up with four siblings in a loving household where grandfather was president of a local synagogue.

Bowers and Gottfried’s life stories converged on Oct. 27, 2018, when Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and shot and killed 11 Jewish worshippers, including Gottfried. A federal jury convicted Bowers of those murders last month and, last week, deemed him eligible for the death penalty.

On Monday, the first day of the trial’s sentencing phase, the same jury began hearing arguments both for and against whether Bowers should receive the death penalty or life in prison. 

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The defense team summarized Bowers’ tumultuous story during its opening statement. The prosecution, meanwhile, highlighted the stories of the 11 victims and then began calling its first witnesses, including Gottfried's sister Carol Black and his wife Peg Durachko. Bowers’ fate will largely depend on what the jury thinks about these contrasting stories they hear.

Jurors are supposed to weigh all of the factors that made Bowers’ crime particularly heinous, including the damage inflicted upon those 11 families. They will also weigh mitigating factors, including stories of a childhood often bereft of love and stability.

The law doesn't say exactly how much weight each of these factors should be given, so it is up to each juror to decide how much significance to give to each of the factors that are proven during this phase of the trial.

"Ladies and gentleman there is no parole in the federal system,” Judge Robert Colville told the jurors in his instructions. “If you determine that Bowers should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of release, the court is required to impose that sentence.”

Two stories

Bowers’ early life was marked by violence and instability, said defense attorney Elise Long during her opening statement. His father abused his mother, often made violent threats, and — after being accused of rape — committed suicide in a park when Bowers was only seven years old.

During adolescence, Bowers and his mother often clashed. Bowers watched his mother harm herself and, in turn, attempted suicide several times himself. Both entered in-patient psychiatric facilities multiple times. Bowers later got a job at a local bakery and was able to live in an apartment above the bakery for 14 years. But, after he was fired in his early 30s, he again threatened suicide and was admitted to a hospital. Bowers largely lived in relatives’ unfinished basements, had only a single friend and rarely left his home.

According to defense lawyers, Bowers' father had been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. Legal experts hired by the defense say Bowers was as well, though the prosecution’s psychological experts say he suffers from a schizoid personality disorder. Already isolated, the defense argues Bowers became even more so after his best friend died in 2016. Because of that, they contend, Bowers received no pushback when he encountered antisemitic content on the internet in 2018 and — over a six month period of 2018 — planned and carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Gottfried, meanwhile, couldn’t stop moving his body, according to the first witness called by the prosecution on Monday, his sister Carol Black. Her brother played clarinet in the marching band, she said. He played basketball, baseball and tennis.

Gottfried majored in English and loved theater but decided to study extra science classes, so he could go back to school to become a dentist where he met his wife, Peg Durachko. Gottfried and Durachko would volunteer to provide free dental services to families in need, in addition to the regular practice they shared. Gottfried started to attend services at New Light congregation in 1992 and never stopped, at times serving as president of the congregation and taking great pride when Black, his sister, began attending services with him as well.

On Oct. 27, 2018 Black said she had hoped all day long that Gottfried had survived the attack and didn’t admit he was gone until 9:30 p.m. when she met with the medical examiner that night.

Durachko, in her testimony, said her life was devastated by the loss of her husband. She decided to close the dental clinic she ran with Gottfried.

“It wasn't any fun anymore to practice by myself,” Durachko testified in court today. “Half of me was gone.”

The final phase of the trial

According to guidelines issued by the court, these two kinds of stories in this case don't have to be proven to the same extent, nor do they have to be given equal weight.

The prosecution must prove the aggravating factors in the case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the jury must unanimously agree. During the second phase of the trial, the jury already found him guilty of four aggravating factors that make him eligible for the death penalty.

Nicole Vasquez Schmitt, who delivered the prosecution’s opening remarks on Monday, said the government will argue that there are five additional aggravating factors that should push the jury to give Bowers the death penalty, including a lack of remorse and his impact on victims’ families.

Prosecutors contend that Bowers' troubled childhood doesn't justify what he did. "Keep in mind that many, many people face trouble throughout their lives. Nothing in this defendant's background mitigates his decision to kill 11 people in a house of worship,” Schmitt said. “This defendant was 46 years old … far removed from anything from childhood and adolescent years.”

The defense’s burden of proof on the other hand is less stringent: Bowers’ attorneys must prove mitigating factors in their client’s favor by a "preponderance of evidence," meaning that each mitigating factor only has to seem more likely true than not true, even if the jurors have some reasonable doubts. The jury doesn't not have to be unanimous about these mitigating factors. Each juror is allowed to decide for themselves whether they find each mitigating factor has been proven.

In addition to his childhood, the defense argued that Bowers has been a model inmate. He has not attempted to contact anyone outside the prison except for his family and has not sought to spread his antisemitic views even inside the prison. He is not a social person, they say, and he would not pose a threat to anyone if he is given life in prison.

"Although he still maintains beliefs that are repugnant and irrational, he has not sought a fan club," Long said.

Both the prosecution and defense admit that Bowers remains unrepentant. Prosecutors say that this should push the jury to sentence him to death. While his defense lawyers say that a sentence of life in prison would give Bowers’ a chance to learn that what he did was wrong and repent.

“We ask that you all keep an open mind and listen to Bowers' life history and ask each of you to look deep in your heart and conclude enough is enough,” Long said. “There has already been enough death and another death will never make things right.”

At the end of this phase of the trial — which is expected to last around two weeks — the jurors must weigh all the aggravating factors against mitigating factors to decide Bowers' fate. This is a moral decision that they each have to make, according to the court's instructions, and there is no legal requirement that says how much weight to give each of these factors.

“You have seen hundreds and hundreds of exhibits in this case, most of them loaded into binders and on carts for your review during deliberations,” Schmitt said. “You will not find their loss or their grief in a binder or on a cart but we will ask you to carry the enormous impact of that loss into the jury room nonetheless and give it tremendous weight when you make your final decision in this case.”

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.