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In Seeking Death Penalty, Government Sets Aside Religious Beliefs Of Some Synagogue Shooting Victims

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A homemade "Stronger than Hate" sign hangs outside the Tree of Life synagogue in the days after the shooting that killed 11 worshippers.

Federal prosecutors announced in August that they will pursue the death penalty against the man accused of killing 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue last October. They argued in a court filing that one reason the attack was especially nefarious was because it stemmed from the defendant’s hatred for Jews.

But some victims believe that executing the defendant would conflict with the Jewish faith itself, and sent letters asking U.S. Attorney General William Barr to opt instead for a plea deal that would put the defendant behind bars for life without the possibility of parole.

Credit Dave Klug / AP
Robert Bowers has been charged with 63 counts, including hate crimes, obstructing the free exercise of religion resulting in death, and firearms-related offenses.

“Both our religious traditions, yours Catholic and mine Jewish, vigorously oppose the death penalty,” Rabbi Jonathan Perlman wrote to Barr. Perlman’s New Light Congregation was housed at Tree of Life at the time of the attack.

Judy Yanowitz, Vice President of Rituals for Congregation Dor Hadash, said her religion was a reason she also opposes capital punishment for the accused shooter.

“I think it comes from a basic value in a human life and the possibility that you can ask for forgiveness,” said Yanowitz, whose congregation worshipped at Tree of Life.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Judy Yanowitz is Vice President of Rituals for Congregation Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that held services at the Tree of Life synagogue until last year's attack.

While the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, calls for capital punishment for a range of offenses, later writings in the Jewish Talmud condemn the practice as “bloodthirsty.” And ancient rabbis raised practically insurmountable barriers to levying the death penalty.

For example, two witnesses were required not only to observe the crime, but also to have warned the perpetrator that the offense they were about the commit was punishable by death.

“We really believe that it’s not up to us, as humans, to take a life, that really only God can do that,” said Seth Adelson, Senior Rabbi at Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom, located just blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue.

‘We no longer do swift and certain justice’

Adelson acknowledges, however, that some Jews believe in capital punishment.

And Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light, said some who worshipped at Tree of Life support the death penalty.

“Some of them want to take him out and have him drawn and quartered, if you remember that medieval punishment,” he said.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Stephen Cohen is Co-president of New Light Congregation, which was housed at Tree of Life.

While Cohen said he does not oppose the death penalty as a general matter, he asked the attorney general not to seek the punishment against the accused gunman.

Like many from the Tree of Life synagogue, Cohen dreads the publicity that a lengthy capital trial would bring. He said the proceeding would be painful for victims and likely force them to endure years of appeals.

“That’s the way our system works,” Cohen said. “That’s my objection. It is not to the death penalty. It is the fact that we no longer do swift and certain justice.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who leads the synagogue’s third congregation, Tree of Life - Or L’Simcha, said he did not have thoughts on the decision to seek the death penalty.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, which worshiped at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“I have complete faith in the Department of Justice to act professionally and do the right thing,” Myers said at a news conference in September.

‘The jury’s going to hear these views’

In federal cases, prosecutors cannot pursue the death penalty without the approval of the U.S. attorney general. The AG makes the decision following months of review by prosecutors.

As part of that process, Justice Department guidelines require the attorneys to consult with victims of the crime or their surviving family members.

Carmen Ortiz had these conversations with survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing when she was the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts.

“They were difficult, but I felt that [it was] critically important for [victims and their family] to know how much we cared, how committed we were.”

The marathon bombing killed five and injured more than 260. One of the bombers was killed in a police chase following the attack. But the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was sentenced to death in 2015.

Ortiz said some victims were against capital punishment.

“I understood where they were coming from and genuinely respected what they were saying,” said Ortiz. “But … everyone has differing views and everyone’s views have to be taken into account.”

And, Ortiz added, there are other important factors to consider, including “the gravity of the crime … the heinousness of the crime, the purpose, the intent that’s voiced.”

Former U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania Harry Litman added that the federal government strives to apply those standards uniformly across states.

“You really shouldn’t be having different standards between Texas and Pennsylvania and Minnesota,” he said.

Like Ortiz, Litman personally opposes the death penalty.

But University of California, Hastings law professor Rory Little said, “The obligation of Department of Justice lawyers is to sort of execute federal law the way it’s been written. And my moral position as to whether it’s a good law or bad law is supposedly not part of the mix.”

Little, who also does not support the death penalty, previously served on the Justice Department’s Capital Case Review Committee. The committee advises the attorney general on whether to approve cases for capital prosecution.

Little noted that victims of the attack on Tree of Life will have the opportunity to share their views on the death penalty during sentencing, if Bowers is found guilty.

“So sooner or later,” he said, “the jury’s going to hear these views.”