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Judge denies defense request to exhume body of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s father

A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the Tree of Life synagogue in on April 19, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the Tree of Life synagogue in on April 19, 2023.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville on Wednesday denied a motion to exhume the body of the father of the man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers in 2018, arguing that the defense attorneys had plenty of time to request such an action at an earlier juncture in the case.

Robert Bowers’ attorneys filed a motion on Tuesday asking the court to order the exhumation of Randall Bowers' body, the man listed as the father on Bowers’ birth certificate. Prosecutors raised the issue of whether Randall was the true father during its cross-examination of defense witnesses during the past week. Bowers’ lawyers argue that Randall’s diagnosis of schizophrenia is important because the disease is believed to be inheritable, and they said that digging up the body and ordering a DNA test would allow the court to determine paternity with certainty.

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Colville said the initial information that raised questions regarding Randall’s paternity was first broached by the defense’s own witness — Bowers’ mother — and, therefore, the effort to exhume the body should have been raised earlier in the case. “The Defense surely had access to, or at least the ability to learn, this information at a much earlier juncture so as to avoid confronting the Court with a motion seeking the extraordinary relief it now seeks thirty-one days into the trial in this matter,” Colville wrote in an official memorandum Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday morning, the federal attorneys prosecuting Bowers raised the same argument Colville cited in his motion. Prosecutors said approving the defense motion would create an unnecessary delay in the trial. “If the defendant truly believed that genetic paternity was so central to this case that DNA confirmation was necessary, he certainly could have, and should have, sought this relief prior to trial and well before the government ever learned what the defendant’s mother told his own expert,” the prosecution wrote in its official response.

Colville emphasized in his official response that it was Bowers’ lawyers and not the prosecutors who raised the issue of paternity in the case. “The Court concludes that the Defense simply made a strategic decision in not pursuing the extraordinary relief at issue at an earlier juncture,” Colville wrote. “Given the late filing and inevitable delay that will result from the relief requested by way of the Motion at issue, the Court hereby denies the Motion as untimely.”

Prosecutors had also argued that the questions they raised about Bowers’ paternity were directed at the credibility of the defense witness, Dr. Katherine Porterfield. “Whether or not Randall Bowers was the defendant’s father, the fact remains that Dr. Porterfield omitted key facts in her recitation and analysis of the defendant’s family history,” the prosecution's motion argues.

The prosecution team also argued that Porterfield did not establish how much of a genetic influence having a father with schizophrenia might have and, therefore, that the issue was tangential to Bowers’ own diagnosis. In addition, the prosecutors claimed that Porterfield focused her testimony on the maternal side of Bowers’ family, again indicating that the issue of Randall’s paternity isn’t central to the case.

Finally, the prosecutors contended that only state courts have jurisdiction to order a body exhumed from a grave and that federal courts don’t have any jurisdiction on the matter.

Colville echoed this argument about jurisdiction in his order as well as the prosecution’s other arguments.

Updated: July 26, 2023 at 1:42 PM EDT
Updated with Judge Robert Colville's denial of the motion.
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.