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Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial: live updates

Published April 24, 2023 at 5:00 AM EDT
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 19, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 19, 2023.

The trial of the man who is accused of killing 11 Jewish worshippers from three congregations in a 2018 attack on a Squirrel Hill synagogue begins Monday, April 24.

What you need to know

  • Robert Bowers faces more than 60 federal charges, including hate crimes, obstruction of religious belief, and using a firearm during a violent crime.
  • The federal trial, which could result in a death-penalty sentence, is expected to last for as long as three months. Here's how legal experts expect it to unfold.
  • Survivors and family members of victims are leaning on each other, and bracing themselves for what could be months of reliving the horror of that day.
  • WESA reporters Oliver Morrison and Julia Zenkevich will be covering the trial and providing regular updates.

Find our latest updates here

Posted May 30, 2023 at 9:21 AM EDT

As the trial moves into the guilt phase, we're starting a new live blog — find it here.

Ground rules laid for striking jurors; lawyers disagree on how to make racial bias arguments

Posted May 23, 2023 at 11:08 AM EDT

Both prosecution and defense lawyers agreed on rules for how to go about striking jurors, according to a court filing on Tuesday. But there is still one looming disagreement: Defense lawyers for Robert Bowers say they will need at least an extra half-day to bring any structural arguments of racial bias that they detect in the way that prosecutors strike jurors.

The prosecution wants all arguments about racial bias to be made on Thursday, while both the government and defense use their 20 strikes to eliminate jurors. The prosecutors argue that giving the defense this additional time could delay the start of the trial.

The basics of how the lawyers will use peremptory strikes has been established. All 69 potential jurors will be called into court, seated in order and given some basic instructions. Then the jurors will wait in the assembly room, while the government and defense alternate striking jurors one at a time, with prosecutors striking first.

Read the full story here.

Jury selection interviews in synagogue shooting trial come to an abrupt end, trial likely to start after Memorial Day

Posted May 17, 2023 at 12:11 PM EDT

Judge Robert Colville on Wednesday morning denied two defense motions to strike potential jurors, and then the court agreed quickly to end jury interviews entirely. "My instinct is you all can spend your time more helpfully and productively not conducting these interviews," Colville said.

The court has 69 potential jurors as of this morning.

The prosecution and defense agreed that the court would reconvene next Thursday, May 25, to call in the potential jurors and issue their peremptory strikes in person.

Last night, Judge Robert Colville issued an order that allows the defense two extra days of preparation before Robert Bowers will be psychologically examined. With jury interviews done, the examination will likely start on Saturday, May 20, and last four and a half days through Wednesday, May 24.

Colville said that he anticipated the guilt phase of the trial to begin the week after Memorial Day weekend.

There are three potential jurors the defense is arguing it needs additional information about and that could theoretically be struck for a hardship. One was about a juror this morning and her connection to someone involved in the trial. The defense lawyers also submitted a last minute brief this morning to gather more information about two other potential jurors who work in the construction industry. One of the jurors mentioned that he didn't know if he would be paid for the duration of the trial, and the defense asked the court to reach out to the juror and find out if that was true or not.

The other juror submitted a letter along with his employer saying that his job would require him to travel during the trial. And the man and his business noted that his company had ties to Israel and some of its members attended synagogue in Squirrel Hill. The defense argued that the court should ask the man some additional questions to understand more about whether the man had any business relationships that might be connected to the synagogues that were attacked during the 2018 shooting.

Yesterday, Colville said that he wasn't inclined to require further follow-up with the man because it might lead to other companies submitting notices on behalf of their employees. But the defense submitted its brief on Wednesday to further argue that the court should follow up with this potential juror to learn more.

Colville also ruled last night that the defense lawyers can be present at the Butler County Prison during Bower's examination but the lawyers can't be in the room where the examination is taking place. Bowers can then talk with his lawyers during breaks in the examination. Colville warned that Bowers can't take excessive breaks or it would undermine the psychological examination and Bowers could jeopardize his ability to make an argument about his mental health.

Colville told the prosecution and defense to decide how the process for peremptory strikes should happen next week and — if they can’t agree on any issue — to put their disagreements into writing for him.

After four jurors struck for hardship, interview process to continue Wednesday

Posted May 16, 2023 at 3:47 PM EDT

With jury selection in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial in its fourth week, it briefly seemed this afternoon the court had identified 69 eligible jurors — just one shy of the 70 needed to proceed to the striking phase of the selection process. That’s because Judge Robert Colville allowed a juror who was interviewed by the court on May 11 to serve. The defense had challenged the juror's eligibility.

The juror had watched a short portion of the HBO documentary about the synagogue shooting, his mom bought "Stronger Than Hate" merchandise sold in the wake of the shooting, and he had messaged with friends about shootings on a Discord server hosted by one of his friends. But the center of the defense's arguments against this particular juror focused on how he responded to questions about the death penalty.

"If we start the third portion of the trial," the defense lawyer, Matthew Rubenstein said, "you will have convicted the defendant of the charges described. Would you be entering that phase strongly leaning towards death?"

"Yes," the juror said.

The defense argued the view expressed by the juror’s answer precluded him from impartially serving on the jury.

The prosecution, however, argued that it is okay for the juror to say that he would be leaning toward the death penalty. That's because — if the trial makes it to the penalty phase — the jury would have already found Bowers guilty of crimes that would make him eligible for the death penalty. And until the defense presented other mitigating evidence, prosecutors said, it would be understandable at that point for a juror to lean toward the death penalty. Judge Colville ultimately ruled that the man was eligible to serve on the jury.

Right after allowing this juror, Colville ruled out four others who had previously been part of the jury pool. This left the court with 65 potential jurors, as it strives to reach 70.

Jury interviews continued in the afternoon, but the majority of the jurors were struck for cause. One potential juror said she grew up on the same street as one of the lawyers in the case. Another juror's girlfriend was treated by Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who was killed during the shooting. The juror said Rabinowitz was especially kind to him and would make conversation even when he wasn't the patient. The prosecution and defense agreed that this connection to the victims made him ineligible to serve.

It appears likely that juror interviews will continue for at least one more day tomorrow.

Prosecution responds to defense motion regarding Bowers’ mental evaluation

Posted May 15, 2023 at 2:31 PM EDT

On Monday afternoon, the prosecution in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial filed an objection in response to the defense’s motion, filed Friday, asking the court to clarify instructions for Bowers’ mental fitness evaluation. They argue that the court’s instructions for the examination are “thorough and detailed” and don’t need to be clarified.

“The substance of the motion makes clear that there is no genuine confusion as to the contents of the Court’s Order, only disappointment with the outcome. That disappointment is no basis for the Court to reconsider its earlier conclusions. The Court should deny the motion,” the objection reads.

Judge Robert Colville has not yet ruled on the motion.

Defense seeks clarification about interview regarding Bowers’ mental fitness

Posted May 15, 2023 at 12:19 PM EDT

Robert Bowers’ defense team filed a motion on Friday asking the court to clarify instructions for Bowers’ mental fitness evaluation. The timing is tight given that the evaluation could start as early as this week or next.

Last week, Judge Robert Colville issued a court order laying out the rules for Bowers' examination by prosecutors. The examination will take place before the trial starts. The defense plans to argue that Bowers has “schizophrenia, epilepsy, and structural and functional impairments of the brain.”

The prosecution’s experts will be allowed to ask Bowers about the crime, but the material won’t be used in court until after the jury has reached a verdict.

Lawyers for the defense are asking the court to clarify the kinds of questions that might be asked during the interrogation. The experts will be allowed to ask Bowers about the crimes he is charged with, as well as his actions before and after the incident. But Bowers’ lawyers want the court to clarify “the breadth of questioning” so they can let their client know if he might be questioned about events or actions following the alleged crime, or his communications with his legal team, defense experts or even communications with family and friends after his arrest.

In a footnote, the defense notes that they’re “most concerned with preventing any discussion about Mr. Bowers’ relationship with his legal team, including his work with the defense experts.” That could include questions about what Bowers thinks of his lawyers or the lawyers’ legal strategy.

According to the filing, the “designated government expert” in this case is the same expert whose communications with Dylann Roof “were a significant part of the impetus for Roof’s request to discharge counsel and represent himself.”

Defense lawyers are also asking the court to allow them on the premises at Butler County Prison while the evaluations are ongoing. Colville already ruled that none of the lawyers can be present during the examination, and the defense cannot be provided with a live video or audio feed of the proceedings. The defense, however, argues Bowers is entitled to access to his lawyers during the questioning.

Colville has not yet ruled on the motion.

On Monday morning, Colville agreed to strike nine jurors for hardship or cause. He denied two motions by the defense to strike one potential juror for hardship and another for both hardship and cause. That leaves 63 potential jurors in the pool.

Likening jury duty to military service, jury candidate ponders ability to set aside personal beliefs

Posted May 11, 2023 at 4:38 PM EDT

Judge Robert Colville ruled on Thursday that none of the 13 prospective jurors who were interviewed Wednesday are eligible to serve on the jury. Three jurors went unchallenged on Thursday. That leaves the court with just 59 potential jurors as it aims to find 70 potential jurors before beginning to whittle the pool down to 18 (12 jurors and 6 alternates).

One potential juror today said she would have a hard time lying down to sleep at night if she had to vote to give someone the death penalty. But the woman's ex-husband served four tours in the active duty military — a fact that the defense lawyers pointed to, asking the woman whether she could set aside her own personal beliefs in the name of duty.

"He did things over there that he would never do here," the woman said. "He wouldn't do those things normally but if it's something that I have to do because nobody else..." The woman then trailed off before finishing the sentence.

The prosecution argued the juror could not be seated because she wouldn't say for sure if she could give a death sentence.

The court now plans to take every other Friday off, so Judge Colville likely won’t decide whether the woman can serve on the jury until jury selection resumes on Monday.

Can a social media post from 2017 get you taken off the jury?

Posted May 10, 2023 at 1:03 PM EDT

An old social media post made by a potential juror in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial led to heated back and forth on Wednesday between prosecution and defense during the jury selection process.

The potential juror posted on social media in 2017, "I hope he suffers" about a man accused of shooting a police officer in the Pittsburgh area. And the potential juror used another derogatory word to describe the perpetrator in a mass shooting in Las Vegas that same year. But when asked about the posts by the defense, the juror said he didn't remember making those posts until he was shown printouts. The juror said, however, that the sentiments expressed in the posts wouldn't impact his ability to serve on a trial where officers were injured.

At the end of questioning, Robert Bowers’ defense attorney Matthew Rubenstein accused the prosecution of trying to seat unfair jurors who would vote for the death penalty no matter what. "This juror is just another example where his extremist views make it clear that if [someone's] guilty of intentional murder, he's going to vote for the death penalty," Rubenstein said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said Rubenstein's "cross examination" of the potential juror was "hostile" and "aggressive. She then accused Rubenstein of hypocrisy for continuing to question a Catholic woman earlier in the morning who said she believed in “the sanctity of life” and that she would be unable to vote for the death penalty.

As the lawyers accused each other of wasting the court's time by questioning jurors unlikely to be seated, the court has begun trying to manage the clock more closely. The court had been unofficially allocating about 10 minutes for Judge Robert Colville to ask initial questions and 10 minutes for each side to ask their own questions. But the questioning has sometimes lasted much longer. After the court got behind schedule yesterday, Colville began notifying the lawyers when they’d reached their 10-minute allotment.

By the start of the day, the court had identified 56 potential jurors out of 169 who had been interviewed. In theory the court only needs to find 58 potential jurors, but Colville said last week that he expects jury selection to continue next week.

Prosecution experts will interview Bowers to determine mental fitness

Posted May 9, 2023 at 10:27 AM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville laid down a detailed set of procedures that will enable prosecution mental health experts to examine Robert Bowers and assess his mental fitness over four and a half days at the prison where he is incarcerated before the trial starts.

Bowers' lawyers filed a notice in February that they will "introduce expert evidence relating to a mental disease or defect or any other mental condition of the defendant bearing on the issue of punishment." The defense later clarified that it will argue Bowers has “schizophrenia, epilepsy, and structural and functional impairments of the brain.”

But the prosecution and the defense couldn't agree on terms for how the prosecution's experts should be allowed to examine Bowers to determine if the defense diagnoses are legitimate. For example, the prosecution wanted the examination to take place at the federal courthouse, near their offices. The defense wanted to view the examinations through a live video feed. Neither of those requests was granted. After a series of written arguments from both sides that lasted several weeks, Colville laid out the rules for Bowers' examination by prosecutors in a court order Monday.

The prosecution's experts will be allowed to ask Bowers about the crime. None of the lawyers is allowed to be present during the exams, and none of the material can be used in court until after the jury has reached a verdict on Bowers' guilt or innocence. The examinations can last six hours on a full day and four hours on a half day, and they will take place on "multiple contiguous days," including weekends. They cannot be recorded unless Bowers agrees to it. The defense is required to provide all of the health records and cognitive tests that its own experts conducted to the prosecution's lead expert before the examinations start.

The prosecutor’s lead mental health expert has said it will take four weeks to prepare reports after the examinations are over. Then, the experts are required to file two sealed folders containing their results with the court, but the court won't release them unless a guilty verdict is reached. If the jury finds Bowers not guilty, the results will be destroyed.

If he is found guilty, Bowers will have a day to look over the prosecution's expert results and consider withdrawing his stated intention to introduce evidence about his mental health. If Bowers does change his mind, all results from the prosecution's examination again will be destroyed. If the defense moves forward with its plans to present a mental health defense, the results of both the prosecution and defense experts' examinations will be released to lawyers for both sides for the second phase of the trial. The lawyers for both sides may also argue later that some aspects of the examinations are inadmissible.

The prosecution said in a court filing that they plan to hire at least a psychologist, a neurologist and a neuropsychologist for the examinations but could potentially include other experts. The prosecution has to provide the expert names, their credentials and the names of the tests they will conduct to the defense before Thursday.

The examinations can then take place as soon as five days after those credentials are provided. The examinations must begin directly after the end of jury selection at the latest, and they must be completed before the beginning of the guilt phase of the trial. The prosecution and defense are supposed to agree on the timing of the examinations, but if they can't come to agreement, the judge will decide the schedule and give the defense three days' notice.

Bowers isn’t required to answer questions during the expert examinations, but according to a citation in Colville’s order, “Such conduct would subject him to the risk of forfeiting his right to present evidence of his mental health.”

The timing specified in the court order implies there could be a delay of several days between jury selection and the start of the trial in order for the examination to be completed (unless Bowers is examined at night or stops attending jury selection in person). Colville notes in his order that performing the examination after the trial started could result in a delay and would make it harder for jurors to connect the arguments about Bowers’ mental health and sentencing, with what they learned during the first guilt phase of the trial.

The prosecution’s lead expert has substantial experience as a court expert and teaches at a law school, Colville said, and this expert could argue, that Bowers needs additional testing beyond what has initially been ordered. Colville said that any further testing would delay the start of the trial even further, and the expert and prosecution “should not presume that such a request would be liberally granted.”

According to an earlier defense filing, the defense’s lead psychiatrist said his examination showed that Bowers has” negative symptoms, thought disorder, and delusions” consistent with schizophrenia. Earlier defense filings show they intend to introduce a three-dimensional reconstruction of Bowers’ brain to support the view that his brain patterns are also consistent with schizophrenia.

They also will include an expert who has interviewed people who knew Bowers for the sake of “developing and potentially presenting a multigenerational, biopsychosocial history, including a focus on adverse childhood experiences and risk factors for serious mental illness.”

Colville also ruled Tuesday morning on several potential jurors from Monday and previous days. There are now 49 potential jurors eligible to serve, out of a total of 155 potential jurors interviewed so far.

Jury selection continues, judge estimates two weeks before the first juror is seated

Posted May 8, 2023 at 1:45 PM EDT

The third week of jury selection in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial began Monday morning. After 10 days of jury selection, more than 140 potential jurors have answered questions about their views on the death penalty, mental health and other topics lawyers think could have an influence on the trial. Only 42 of those jurors are still eligible to be in the jury pool.

The court will need at least 58 potential jurors before they can move forward. The final group will include 12 jurors and six alternates. Both the prosecution and the defense can strike 20 jurors each without cause.

During questioning today, Judge Robert Colville estimated that the jury selection process would last at least another two weeks, but he stressed that the timeline could change.

Though lawyers are questioning upwards of 10 people per day, typically only a few have remained eligible to be seated; the majority have been struck due to hardship or cause.

On Monday morning, Colville granted seven joint motions made last week to strike jurors for either hardship or cause. He also granted three motions by the defense to strike for cause, and one motion to strike for cause made by prosecutors.

Lawyers interviewed an additional five candidates Monday morning. As of Monday afternoon, Colville has not ruled on any of those jurors’ eligibility to be seated for the trial.

Potential juror’s political beliefs spark disagreement between prosecution and defense

Posted May 5, 2023 at 12:05 PM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville ruled on Friday that seven potential jurors questioned this week are not eligible to serve on the jury. But he still hasn’t ruled on one juror who appeared at jury selection on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the prosecution motioned to excuse the man, saying that his responses “raised serious concerns” about his ability to be an impartial jury member. Lawyers for the defense objected on the basis that excluding the potential juror would violate his First Amendment rights, as well as the defendant’s right to due process and a fair and impartial jury.

Both sides pointed to the court-provided transcript to support their arguments but came to very different conclusions.

Prosecutors stressed that they don’t object to the juror because of his political views but did express concerns about his “strong” Libertarian beliefs and active participation with the Libertarian party (which the juror described as “the ‘government should probably leave people alone’ party”).

The juror said he was “very familiar” with what he called the defendant’s “manifesto” and statements he made after the synagogue shooting in 2018. Prosecutors argued he was “unwilling to articulate or openly discuss his own views on them” and also referenced social media posts the potential juror made criticizing the government and federal law enforcement.

Lawyers for the defense quoted large chunks of the transcript and claimed that “viewed in the correct context, none of these allegations [made by the prosecution] is correct, and none establishes proper grounds for excusing the juror for cause.”

The defense argued the potential juror wasn’t evasive when answering questions about the defendant's beliefs, but instead argued that “the evidence shows that the juror was trying his best to recall the details of online content that he had viewed four and a half years ago.” They also noted that the juror said his criticisms of the government and the FBI were said “somewhat satirically and as part of a meme” and are “strong but complex views and not entirely solidified views either.”

Coleville has not yet ruled on the motion.

After questioning six potential jurors Friday morning, both sides agreed to three stipulated motions for hardship and one stipulated motion for cause for a juror who said he knew multiple potential witnesses in the case.

The defense motioned to strike a juror for his strong support of the death penalty; prosecutors objected.

Prosecutors motioned to strike another juror who said it would be difficult for him to impose the death penalty. The defense objected.

Coleville has not ruled on any of Friday morning’s motions.

Some potential jurors say life in prison is worse than the death penalty

Posted May 4, 2023 at 3:28 PM EDT

The second potential juror questioned today lives in Butler County and said he was at a church in Shadyside when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened. He expressed the view that living with the guilt of a crime could be worse than being put to death.

"Sometimes making somebody live, and knowing what they did wrong and carry[ing] that burden is probably more trying on them than putting them to death," he said.

He wasn’t the first potential juror to express this. The first potential juror interviewed on April 26 said it's "far worse to think about it the rest of your life" than to be put to death. And on May 2, a potential juror said, "If necessary, I see the point [of the death penalty] but also feel it's an easy way out. They don't have to sit there and think about what they did."

These potential jurors are allowed to serve only if they can agree to put aside this personal belief, according to the lawyers and judge.The jurors are required by law to potentially consider factors that make the circumstances of the crime either more or less severe — and choose the death penalty as the more severe punishment.

The man from Butler County later clarified in his answers that he didn't believe life in prison is any worse than the death penalty but that it also is a very serious punishment. Neither the defense nor the prosecution made a motion to strike him.

The fifth potential juror questioned on Thursday said her brother-in-law is a first responder and was getting gas in Squirrel Hill, two blocks away from the shooting scene, when he heard gunshots. He heard the call for help on his radio and drove to the scene. When he arrived, he saw two police officers engaged in gunfire with the gunman and that one of those officers ultimately lost two fingers, she said.

Her brother-in-law later had to go into the building to check to see if there was a gas leak, and he described a "horrific, horrific scene,” she said. There was jewelry spilled on the floor, as well as gun shells and victims, he told her. He said he thought he had passed through all of the carnage as he made his way to the kitchen to check on the gas stove when he found two additional bodies there, she added.

The defense cut off her description and told the judge they had heard enough. Both the defense and prosecution agreed that the potential juror had heard too many specific details about the shooting to be able to serve fairly on the jury.

Because of the late start this morning, potential jurors were told in the afternoon that they could reschedule if they wanted but didn’t have so. Six jurors were interviewed in the morning, and three were scheduled to be interviewed in the afternoon: Nine is the fewest number of interviews conducted in one day so far.

After the morning’s interviews, there are at least 41 potential jurors who could sit on the jury and have not been struck for cause. The judge has not ruled on three additional people. In total, 127 people have been considered as potential jurors so far.

A COVID-19 exposure delays jury selection at the synagogue trial

Posted May 4, 2023 at 10:48 AM EDT

The vestiges of the pandemic found their way into the synagogue shooting trial on Thursday, after a reported COVID-19 exposure left the court scrambling to find masks for participants and come up with guidelines for how to interact.

Court proceedings ended up starting more than 90 minutes late, with all court employees and lawyers wearing masks and an additional empty seat between them all.

The court then discussed a couple of procedures, including whether the potential jurors should be masked. Defense lawyer Matthew Rubenstein said it is important to see the potential jurors' faces in order to see their expressions and see how they are responding.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said that he would ask jurors to remove their masks when they are speaking, but he added, "If a juror tells me they don't want to remove their mask, I'm not going to make them remove their mask."

When the potential jurors entered the courtroom to listen to their jury instructions together, none of them had opted to wear a mask at all. Still, Colville opted to give the first juror of the day an elbow bump rather than shake his hand, as questioning started up again shortly after 10:30 a.m.

Potential jurors are unsure if they could vote to put someone to death

Posted May 3, 2023 at 4:19 PM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville ruled on Wednesday that seven potential jurors questioned on Tuesday are not eligible to serve on the jury. That leaves about 36 potential jurors who could still serve, as the court looks to find at least 58 potential jurors for the case.

Court proceedings started 20 minutes late on Wednesday morning, and the judge and lawyers spent around an hour interviewing the first three potential jurors of the day, putting the court behind schedule.

One of the potential jurors said he recently went through a religious awakening, adding that he was worried that he might have been summoned to court for a criminal case that would require him to pass judgment and send someone to prison. He said he was shocked to learn that serving on the jury in this case might require him to decide to put someone to death.

The potential juror said he wasn't sure if he could consider the death penalty at all, "because my beliefs about the morality of that are unsettled right now, I don't know how I could deal with it."

The pace increased in the afternoon, as several jurors were eliminated, including a doctor who said the patients he treats for cancer would suffer if he had to serve on the jury. Another juror said she didn't believe it would be fair to taxpayers to pay the cost of feeding and housing someone who deserved the death penalty.

Then came a 66-year-old woman with anxiety who said she didn't believe she could vote to put someone to death.

"A person can sit and listen and weigh and be respectful and study. I am that kind of person," she said. "But at the end of the day, I still cannot sign my name to taking a person's life."

Both the prosecution and defense agreed that the woman should not serve on the jury because she couldn't set aside her beliefs about the death penalty.

Judge denies defense motion to dismiss ‘arbitrary’ death penalty charge

Posted May 3, 2023 at 12:20 PM EDT

Judge Robert Colville rejected a motion by the defense to dismiss the government's attempt to seek the death penalty in the case in a decision filed with the court on Tuesday afternoon.

Robert Bowers’ defense team argued in an April 4 motion that the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty was arbitrary. An exhibit submitted with the motion listed a number of homicide cases where the government chose not to pursue the death penalty. The exhibit described each case briefly and included some demographic information about the victims.

Colville's ruling said that simply listing some cases that had some similarities wasn't sufficient to show the government's decision was arbitrary. "Defendant fails entirely to satisfy his burden of providing some evidence that the defendants in the cases he cites are 'similarly situated' to him, instead relying again on limited, one- or two-sentence descriptions of these other cases," Colville wrote. He added that, the “attempt to analogize his case to others 'based on the number of victims or the motive for the murders involves ‘a gross oversimplification’ of the variables at hand.'"

Colville also noted that the defense didn't respond to the government's argument that the government did seek the death penalty in the case of Dylann Roof, who similarly killed many victims in a house of worship in South Carolina. And in that case the jury did vote to impose the death penalty. "Despite being ordered to do so, Defendant failed to file a reply addressing the case law cited by the Government," Colville wrote.

The defense also argued that Attorney General Merrick Garland should've been involved in the decision based on the guidelines set forth in the Department of Justice's manual that describes the process for how these decisions are made. But Colville rejected this notion as well, citing the manual when he wrote "the decision whether to pursue the death penalty rests with 'the attorney for the government,' not any specific attorney."

Finally, the defense argued that the government didn't consider all relevant information in making its determination because it didn't look at Bowers’ mental health status. But in that case Bowers’ lawyers declined to make him available for a mental health examination that could have then been considered. "Defendant fails, however, to provide the Court with any basis to conclude that the fact that the Department sought, and the Defendant refused, a mental health examination somehow undermines the rejection of his withdrawal request," Colville wrote.

Growing up in Carrick shaped one potential juror's views

Posted May 2, 2023 at 4:25 PM EDT

A potential juror who said he grew up in Carrick in the 1980s said he recently attended a fundraising event for a friend with cancer. During that fundraiser, he discussed with his friends how two of their childhood friends have struggled as adults, he said. The reason, he said, is because the parents of those two friends let those kids drink and use drugs in their homes.

Seeing how children’s upbringing can impact their later life, he said, has made him more lenient toward people facing the death penalty.

"They grew up a little different than the rest of us and ran into problems later on in life, and a lot of the reason, in my opinion, is the environment they were raised in, the household they raised in," he said. "Possibly someone who grew up in a really tough household with some really bad things happen to them could possibly get a little leniency."

But the potential juror also said his time in Carrick has made him believe that executions take too long to be carried out. A Carrick High School homecoming queen was murdered in Cranberry Township in 1986 when he was in fourth or fifth grade, and the person convicted of first-degree murder for killing her sat on death row for decades, he said.

"To me, that is too long," the potential juror said.

That man also said he believes that there has been a recent increase in the number of fake hate crimes. Several other potential jurors have expressed a similar sentiment during jury selection. This potential juror cited an incident involving actor Jussie Smollett and another unspecified time that a professor wrote “KKK” on their own car. The prosecution asked the potential juror how in this case he would decide whether the hate crimes with which the defendant is charged were real or hoaxes.

"Well, there are 11 people who aren't with us," the man replied.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense challenged the potential juror.

By about 3:30 p.m., the court had spoken to nine potential jurors. At least three of them, including the man from Carrick, could still potentially serve on the jury.

The defense challenged one potential juror because the woman's daughter had run a bake sale to support the victims of the shooting, and in the past 10 years she had taught children with the same last name as some of the victims. The prosecution disagreed with the challenge.

Both the prosecution and defense agreed that five potential jurors from today should not serve, due to such reasons as giving inconsistent answers, having young children to care for at home, suffering from a mental health challenge that would make sitting through the trial difficult or having a financial hardship because of a job that wouldn't pay for jury service.

One juror said she lived next door to Bowers growing up and that his now-deceased grandfather let her play in their yard and pool. But she didn’t remember seeing or knowing anything about Bowers himself.

“They were quiet and kept to themselves,” she said.

Both the defense and prosecution agreed there was good reason not to let her serve on the jury.

The court is on pace to approve enough potential jurors by May 9 or May 10

Posted May 2, 2023 at 1:03 PM EDT

There are now 32 potential jurors who could be seated at the trial, out of a total of 96 who have been interviewed. Between Friday and Monday, Judge Robert Colville granted 16 motions to strike jurors and allowed three jurors who had been challenged to potentially serve. One of the jurors who appeared on April 26 submitted a late motion to be excluded because of her advanced age; both the defense and the prosecution agreed.

It's expected that the court will continue to look for potential jurors until they find at least 58. That would allow for 40 jurors to be struck by both the defense and prosecution without cause (20 each), and another 18 jurors to serve during the case — 12 in the jury and six as alternates. It's still unclear what the process will be or how long it will take for the prosecution and defense to decide which 40 jurors they want to eliminate without cause.

The court has identified about four to five jurors per day that could potentially serve on the jury. At that pace, it will have identified enough jurors by Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

The judge has also yet to rule on one juror from Monday, a middle-aged man who works in construction. The jurors are instructed not to look at media about the case, but the juror said he looked at some media in order to try to find out when and how long his jury service would be. That’s because, the juror said, his construction company is coming up on its busy season and he's responsible for writing their contract bids.

The juror said that he didn't hear any specific details about the case that would impact his judgment. "My schedule is continually evolving, so I want to know where we'll be so I can make some kind of plans," he said.

The juror also disclosed two instances when the case was discussed in his presence: one time at a party and one time during dinner at a bar. The juror said that he didn't participate in the discussions. But during one of those instances, he told the person he was talking to what case he had been called to serve jury duty for and the person responded that they thought Robert Bowers should be hanged.

Is jury service an inconvenience or a hardship?

Posted May 1, 2023 at 3:40 PM EDT

There are some hardships that allow potential jurors to automatically forgo their service, such as being age 70 or older, or if they are the primary caretakers for people whose health would otherwise be in jeopardy. Other hardships are less clear-cut.

The fourth potential juror of the day was a bit older than others, and she said she has some health concerns. She also said she is worried about serving on the jury, in part, because of how long her days would be.

She said she lives 15 miles from the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border, and she left home at 5:15 a.m. today to drive to federal court, Downtown. On the way, she ran into traffic, and her GPS ended up routing her through Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, she said. If selected for the jury, she said, she worries that she would have to wake before 5 a.m. and wouldn't get home until 7:30-8 p.m. each day of trial.

Juries for federal cases in Pittsburgh are selected from voter registration lists in 13 southwestern Pennsylvania counties: Mercer, Clarion, Jefferson, Lawrence, Butler, Armstrong, Indiana, Beaver, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Fayette and Greene. A potential juror who lives in Crenshaw, Jefferson County, for example, would have to drive more than 100 miles to the courthouse, which would take more than two hours without traffic, according to Google Maps.

The seventh potential juror of the day said he is the leader of 75 employees and has overseen $700 million in communication acquisitions in the past four years. He said that he's constantly in communication for business — even on his vacations — and that the hardest part of serving on the jury would be having to be away from his phone.

If selected to serve, he would still work from 5 p.m. to midnight every night, he said. This was doable, he said, because of his history as an investment banker who worked 18-20 hours six or seven days per week. Jury service wouldn't just be an "inconvenience," though, but it would be "extremely inconvenient," for his job, he said.

Prosecutors said they can't show preference to one person over another because they feel one person’s job is more important: "It somewhat calls into question the importance of one person's job versus another person's job. You understand that?"

“Absolutely,” the potential juror said.

The bar for removing potential jurors because of their professions is high. A person can be removed only by meeting this standard: “Any person whose presence is so essential to the operation of a business, that such business must close or cease to function during the absence of that person for jury service.”

The seventh potential juror said his business would not shut down because of his jury service.

Ultimately, both the prosecution and defense appeared ready to remove the potential juror from consideration — not because of his job but because he had paid $5,000 for a fishing trip in Canada with his father and about 20 other people in mid-July.

Who is the defense lawyer asking the questions?

Posted May 1, 2023 at 1:15 PM EDT

While the prosecution has alternated who asks questions during jury selection, a single lawyer, Matthew Rubenstein, has asked all of the questions for the defense. Rubenstein, who is based in Portland, Oregon, was a late addition to the official defense team, with a motion of his appearance added to the court record the day before jury selection began. He's bald, wears glasses and is the most soft-spoken of all the attorneys: he's the only person whose voice regularly can't be understood through the court's AV system.

Although he officially joined the defense late, he has substantial experience. Rubenstein is the director of the Capital Resource Counsel Project, one of the main federal legal resources for defendants facing the death penalty. He has worked on death penalty cases in nine states and has conducted "Morgan method life-qualification" in more than a dozen death penalty cases, according to his professional webpage.

What is the "Morgan method"? It refers to Morgan v Illinois, a case that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 and ultimately established a right for judges to strike jurors who could not consider a penalty less than the death penalty. The decision was made, in a 6-3 ruling, by a court that was more liberal-leaning than it is currently: Justice Clarence Thomas was joined by fellow conservatives William Rehnquist and Antonia Scalia, in dissent. For 25 years before that decision, judges were allowed to strike jurors only if they could not vote for the death penalty.

In subsequent research, legal scholars have determined that some jurors will openly and clearly say whether they always think the death penalty is appropriate. But in other cases, for example, jurors aren’t aware of their own beliefs.

A2008 article in The Justice System Journal, for example, looked at more than 100 jurors who had served in death penalty cases in Kentucky. Some of these jurors said they would consider a lesser sentence than the death penalty. But in looking over their full explanations, the kinds of situations that they said would warrant a lesser penalty were not, in fact, death penalty-eligible cases, such as cases of self-defense, the heat of passion or temporary insanity.

"These are the jurors most difficult to detect during voir dire [jury selection] because they genuinely believe that they would follow the law and consider a sentence of less than death in some murder cases," the article states.

So, for example, when the fifth potential juror quested today said, "I am in favor of the death penalty but I could vote for less of a sentence,” Rubenstein's job, in part, is to try to figure out if she really could vote for something less than the death penalty. He started off by asking the woman why she thinks there should be a death penalty at all.

"There are people who have admitted that they wanted to hurt somebody," she said. "I believe they have no conscience. Maybe they are born like that and admit they want to hurt and harm people, and if they're in front of me saying they intentionally are doing harm to people, don't have any conscience and don't feel guilty about it, I do think they should be put to death."

Rubenstein later asked her more specifically, in a case like the one before them that involves potential religious hatred in a house of worship, whether she could consider something less than the death penalty.

"I could vote for a sentence less than death," she said. "The reason being, I believe there is mental illness all around us."

"So in this case, you would want to know how the hatred developed?" Rubenstein asked.

"Yes," she said.

Rubenstein kept pushing and asked her if she thought that life in prison without the possibility of release was a serious punishment.

"I am a compassionate person by nature," she said. "I have worked with children who have been abused and neglected and investigated people who have done these charges to abuse and neglect these children. I've seen the impact of how a child is raised and what it can do to that person throughout their life.”

The prosecution asked her a series of questions as well, including, finally, a question about her view of adult responsibility and why she could consider the death penalty even if a person had a tough upbringing.

"I didn't have the easiest upbringing," she said. "We all have hurdles in our life. But I'm not going around committing crimes with all the hurdles I've gone through. I've used things for goodness."

Neither the defense nor the prosecution challenged the potential juror’s ability to serve.

Court started before 8:30 a.m. today, without a prior announcement to the media, so it's not clear which jurors from Friday are still eligible to serve and which ones are not. As of Friday, there were 27 potential jurors who had not been challenged for cause.

Community reflects as first week of jury selection comes to an end

Posted April 28, 2023 at 3:43 PM EDT

As jury selection in the synagogue shooting trial winds down for the week, 10.27 Healing Partnership director Maggie Feinstein reflected Friday afternoon on the first few days of the proceedings.

“This week, as we've watched the two legal teams really take this on and try to seat a jury that can be fair and impartial, what we've seen is that it's really difficult in a case of capital murder,” Feinstein said at a news conference across the street from the federal courthouse.

“There's a lot of burden for the jurors to think deeply about how they feel about criminal justice, how they feel about the death penalty,” she said.

She said she’s been “impressed” with the thoroughness and care the judge and lawyers have shown during the jury selection process, adding that it allows them to “[honor] the dignity of all the potential jurors.” Jurors have participated in questioning sessions lasting anywhere from a few minutes to nearly an hour.

Victims and families impacted by the shooting are handling the start of the months-long trial process differently, according to Feinstein. Some have observed jury selection, while others chose not to do so.

Acts of support and solidarity “continue to be really important” and will be throughout the trial, she said.

“I think that as we see more attention coming to Pittsburgh, [it’s about] making sure that people have the freedom to worship, making sure people don't feel scared to go out. They don't feel scared to go to synagogue. They don't feel scared to go to church. They don't feel scared to go to their mosque,” said Feinstein. “I think that Pittsburghers have a responsibility right now to take actions to really care for their neighbors and to really care for each other.”

Still no jurors seated for Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

Posted April 28, 2023 at 11:43 AM EDT

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville ruled on a number of motions regarding potential jurors Friday morning.

He granted motions to strike seven jurors who answered questions on Thursday. He also denied two motions by the defense; one to strike a U.S. citizen born in China who had experience with the Chinese legal system and another to strike a juror for cause.

A total of six jurors questioned yesterday could potentially be seated. No jurors have been seated yet.

By Friday morning, Colville and lawyers for both sides had interviewed five new jurors. Colville has not ruled on their participation.

Synagogue trial jury selection enters fourth day

Posted April 27, 2023 at 12:20 PM EDT

Lawyers for the defendant on Wednesday motioned to strike a potential juror who is now a U.S. citizen but was born in China.

The defense lawyers cited her responses to questions about the death penalty, as well as her “language proficiency” and “cultural issues.”

Prosecutors said they object to the move.

The jury candidate said she attended law school in China and worked as a paralegal for a Pittsburgh law firm for 24 years. She said she was traveling internationally at the time of the synagogue shooting and didn’t know details about the incident, but she generally expressed support for the death penalty. She said she believes that, sometimes, imprisonment isn’t a strong enough deterrent for people planning to commit crimes.

Prosecutors noted that people who favor the death penalty are permitted to serve on juries in capital cases. They also said the juror agreed to “hear the whole picture” and demonstrated “tremendous proficiency” in understanding and speaking English.

Judge Robert Colville has not yet ruled on the motion.

Colville did grant motions this morning to strike 13 jurors who answered questions on Wednesday. He denied one motion by the government to strike an additional juror, meaning at least three jurors who appeared in court on Wednesday could still be seated.

That brings the potential pool up to 18 jurors who could be seated. A total of 33 jurors have been rejected so far.

How news reports are impacting jury selection

Posted April 26, 2023 at 2:23 PM EDT

Potential jurors were instructed by judge Robert Colville not to pay attention to media reports about the trial after they were called in to fill out questionnaires in March. And most jurors say they haven’t, except briefly and inadvertently.

But in one instance, the prosecution argued that a woman shouldn’t be seated on the jury because she’d heard a recent news report regarding families of some of the synagogue shooting victims wanting Bowers to receive the death penalty. “She’s not supposed to know that and cannot use that in her decision making,” the prosecution argued. “There’s a very real chance she could share that knowingly or unknowingly to the rest of the jury. So, we have a juror that has information she is not supposed to know, and it’s information different than the facts of the case. And this is a juror, when filling out the questionnaire, who said [she] would have a very hard time disregarding what she’s heard.”

Potential jurors, however, have talked repeatedly about how the media, in general, has shaped their underlying views, which could impact whether they decide if the death penalty is warranted. Some of the jurors have talked about viewing crimes on TV as a reason for why they support the death penalty. “I just pay a lot of attention to other cases on TV or media. I don’t know all the facts, but I do believe if you had done a crime — and it was planned and you had no remorse or reason and the facts show it — I do believe you can be sentenced to the death penalty,” one juror said on Monday.

Other jurors have said reports they have seen in the media have undermined their faith in the death penalty. One potential juror on Wednesday said she’d heard about cases on podcasts where someone was wrongfully convicted. Another woman on Wednesday said she had a very similar experience. “I listen to a lot of podcasts,” she said. “Sometimes they get the truth and sometimes they don’t.”

Several jurors have said that they think the media is pushing too many stories about hate crimes or racial discrimination. A white woman on Monday said she thought most of the stories about hate crimes were hoaxes in the media. “I’m not saying they don’t happen,” she said. “I just feel a lot of stuff is overblown in media.” (Later, she said that she had made a choice not to read many news articles anymore since the COVID-19 pandemic closures.)

Later that day a Black potential juror, who said he had been called racial epithets in the past, agreed that the media was pushing a divisive narrative: “I do also believe different media outlets push stories that cause more division, don’t tell the whole truth, and it definitely has made things worse than better.”

First Jewish prospective juror says “I’ve been faced with this my whole life”

Posted April 26, 2023 at 11:24 AM EDT

A woman whose son is graduating high school this year and will be attending college in the fall was the first prospective juror who identified herself as Jewish. She doesn’t attend synagogue anymore or practice her faith and hasn’t raised her children as Jewish. But she did attend B’anai Israel as a child, she said, and her father sometimes still attends synagogue. She attended the Community Day School for four years in elementary school and knew friends who’d had their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs at Tree of Life.

She said she would deal with anti-Jewish hatred like hatred toward any other religion or group. “I feel affiliated from my religion from a variety of places, but I think [I would feel the same] for any other religion that went through this.”

During questioning by the defense, she said she has been impacted by antisemitism and believes the issue could affect her during the trial. “I’ve been faced with this my whole life, clearly not to the point where it’s affected me personally, but I’ve seen this my whole life. Whether it’s a comment, a joke — it’s still there. So, yes, it would affect me and it does affect me, and I don’t know how it couldn’t affect me.”

After the juror left, the prosecution challenged the juror for being impaired on the grounds that she had been too emotional. “For the duration of the examination, she was very emotional, using Kleenex and tearful in a number of her responses,” said Soo Song, the chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s office Western District of Pennsylvania. “We feel compelled that her Jewish faith and any association with the synagogue are not disqualifying. And she was careful about showing she was not impaired for that reason.”

The defense noted that there had been other jurors who had become emotional and that this was understandable given the seriousness of the responsibility. A ruling on whether she will be struck from the jury for cause likely won’t be made until tomorrow morning.

Earlier this morning, Judge Robert Colville granted motions to strike 11 additional jurors who answered questions on Tuesday. He denied two motions by the defense. That means eight of the jurors who spoke at court on Tuesday could still be seated.

Over the course of the first two days, a total of 15 jurors are still eligible to be seated and 20 prospective jurors in total have been rejected.

When will the first juror be seated?

Posted April 25, 2023 at 3:15 PM EDT

Seven of the jurors who spoke in court on Monday could potentially be seated. But the court hasn't made clear the process by which that will be decided.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville announced this morning that nine potential jurors from yesterday were definitely excluded "for cause." The defense and prosecution agreed to dismiss six of those jurors. Colville struck three additional jurors for cause after they had been challenged — two by the defense and one by the prosecution. But Colville allowed three potential jurors to remain in the pool even though they had been challenged, two by the defense and one by the prosecution.

The defense or prosecution could, in theory, still strike one or all of the remaining jurors from yesterday by using one of their 20 free strikes, or "peremptory challenges." Either side can use its challenges to dismiss a juror without giving a reason. But neither the defense nor prosecution has tried to do this yet and the court hasn't made clear when "peremptory challenges" could happen.

Why lawyers keep asking questions about a juror's views of the death penalty when their general position is already clear

Posted April 25, 2023 at 2:16 PM EDT

The fourth potential juror of the day stated clearly that, based on what he knew about the shooting at Tree of Life, there was no question about what happened and who did it. And he offered a set view about what kind of penalty that kind of act deserves: The death penalty.

"What was reported is this happened. This isn't something that hasn't happened. It's not something from my understanding, they're not going to come and say he didn't do this," he said.

Defense attorneys did not immediately move to strike that potential juror but instead continued to ask him questions to clarify his beliefs.

One reason for doing so may have been tactical: In general, the defense wants the judge to strike potential jurors they don't want for cause, so they don't have to waste one of their own 20 strikes. So through their questions, they aim to make it clear to the judge that there is no wiggle room in a potential juror's stance about the death penalty.

Defense attorneys also continued to question another prospective juror who was opposed to the death penalty. The fifth juror of the day, a young woman, said, "I feel like at my core in my belief for the rest of my life I don't think I could be at ease with" giving someone a death sentence.

Despite her answer, the defense continued to ask her if at the very least she could consider death seriously. "I don't think I could, no," the juror said.

The prosecution then objected to seating the juror because of her answers, and the defense didn't object.

No ‘rules’ for this

Posted April 25, 2023 at 11:32 AM EDT

The third prospective juror of Tuesday brought up one of the central dilemmas of the case. The juror, a Methodist woman whose religion teaches forgiveness, said she would implement whatever punishment was prescribed by the court. "I thought there were rules and guidelines, if this such and such crime happened, this is an appropriate sentence," she said. "I thought there were standards."

But as the judge and lawyers informed her, the law doesn't actually prescribe whether or not the death penalty should be applied in any particular case. Instead, the law has guidelines about what kinds of evidence the jury has to hear before making its decision.

There are certain “aggravating” issues that are supposed to compel the jury to consider the seriousness of the crime. And there are certain “mitigating” issues that are supposed to make the jury consider the life of the person who committed the crime — and potentially a lesser punishment. But there is no dictate about how heavily each of these issues should be weighted by any particular juror.

Each juror is, in a sense, on their own, charged with using their own moral intuition to come to a judgment.

And that's why jury selection — though it is repetitive and long — is so crucial to this trial. It is the specific moral makeup and judgment of the 12 people chosen who may determine what some see as the biggest open question in the trial: If found guilty, will Robert Bowers be sentenced to life in prison or to death?

The questions facing prospective jurors

Posted April 25, 2023 at 10:49 AM EDT

There have been several potential jurors who have expressed seemingly contradictory views about whether they would be able to set aside everything that they had heard about the case and their beliefs about the death penalty, or whether they would be unduly influenced by knowing someone who had been impacted by the shooting.

Jurors, in answer to one question, seem to say that they could put aside their beliefs or previous knowledge. But in response to other questions, they say they might not.

In several cases, the defense tried to strike these jurors for cause. And after the proceeding ended yesterday, the defense filed a motion citing case law to support their view that these jurors' answers should not appear ambiguous.

The motion quotes U.S. vs Gonzalez: “When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will ‘lay aside’ her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,"

Another issue that has come up repeatedly is whether someone's personal experience can help them make a better decision in the trial or will make it harder for them to be impartial.

The first potential juror today said there were significant mental health issues in his family, including a nephew who committed suicide who he believed suffered from depression. "I probably understand mental health a little more," the man said.

The second juror today works in a hospital and her husband works with patients with mental illnesses; she said she's seen patients get better once they start taking their medication again. She said she could see that the introduction of issues of mental illness could be relevant in a trial. "People can have manic states that cause them to do things that they normally wouldn't," she said.

Will that kind of perspective help that juror understand a potential determination about what Bowers is alleged to have done? Or will it mean she will instead see her own patients in Bowers instead of who Bowers really is himself?

Day two of jury selection

Posted April 25, 2023 at 7:00 AM EDT

Jury selection will continue today in the trial of the man accused of killing 11 Jewish worshipers from three congregations in a 2018 attack on a Squirrel Hill synagogue.

During questioning on Monday, multiple prospective jurors mentioned their connections to the Tree of Life synagogue and the three congregations that worshiped there.

Lawyers for the defendant moved to strike one of the potential jurors based on his relationship with a person affected by the shooting. They objected to another after he voiced strong support for the death penalty. Prosecutors objected to both motions.

The jury selection process is expected to last several weeks. The jury will include 12 jurors and six alternates.

What happened on the first day of jury selection in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

Posted April 24, 2023 at 4:46 PM EDT

Several potential jurors were challenged because of their personal ties to impacted people or their rigid views on the death penalty during the first day of jury selection today in the trial of the man accused of killing 11 Jewish worshipers in a Squirrel Hill synagogue in 2018. The jury will include 12 jurors and six alternates.

Robert Bowers, formerly of Baldwin, is charged with more than 60 federal crimes, including hate crimes resulting in death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the trial, which is expected to start in mid- to late-May.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville spoke in general terms to two groups of potential jury members in the morning and afternoon about the nature of the crime and what will happen during the course of the trial. Colville explained the death penalty process, including what factors the jury could take into account to instead impose a punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

Then Colville and lawyers for both sides asked questions of each potential juror, alone, for around 30 minutes about their answers to a series of around 90 survey questions. Those questions included issues such as whether the potential jurors know anyone involved in the case, whether they are a member of a religious faith, whether they have heard about the case in the media and a number of variations on whether or not they believe in the death penalty and could fairly apply it in this case.

During these individual questioning sessions, several challenges to the process of selecting jurors have already emerged.

Read more about what jurors said today.

Connections to synagogue, congregations emerge in juror questioning

Posted April 24, 2023 at 1:43 PM EDT

As the judge, prosecution and defense continued their questioning of potential jurors Monday afternoon, multiple connections to the three Squirrel Hill congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life / Or L'Simcha — emerged.

One juror had worked at the Tree of Life building a couple of times as a union mechanic. The juror said he believed strongly in the death penalty in general and especially in a case like the one that would be decided, but that he wouldn't automatically sentence someone to death. "There needs to be repercussion for actions," he said. Lawyers for the defense motioned to strike the juror, citing his strong preference for the death penalty. Prosecutors objected to the motion.

Another juror disclosed that her friend appeared in the HBO documentary “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.” The juror, an ICU nurse in the UPMC system, said she believes she could still be impartial when hearing evidence in the case. She said she’s not opposed to the death penalty.

A third potential juror, a public school teacher, said one of his colleagues attended services at Tree of Life and knew some of the victims. He said they had not discussed the incident or her feelings about it in depth. Lawyers for the defense moved to strike the juror because of his connection to the synagogue. The prosecution opposed the motion.

Prosecutors and defense appeared to agree to strike two other jurors. Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said one “didn’t appear capable of considering evidence in this case for a variety of reasons” and another spoke strongly in favor of the death penalty.

Judge Colville has not yet ruled on any of the motions.

The defendant, Robert Bowers, was wearing a gray sweater and blue shirt. He appeared engaged and was taking notes and conferring with one of his lawyers, according to a pool reporter in the court room.

Dan Leger, one of the victims who was wounded in the shooting but survived, and the two sons or Rose Mallinger, who was killed during the shooting, were also present in court.

A new chapter for the Tree of Life synagogue

Posted April 24, 2023 at 11:53 AM EDT
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA

Members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill gathered Sunday to bid farewell to their former building. The synagogue will undergo major renovations as members of the city’s Jewish community distance themselves from shooting.

Rather than saying “goodbye," attendees sang “l’hitraot," or “until we meet again.”

“We'll be back again,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. “And evil did not chase us from our building.”

Renovation plans for the synagogue include a sanctuary and museum. A dramatic skylight will run across the length of the structure.

While a groundbreaking date has not been announced, faith leaders removed one of the building’s mezuzahs — a small set of scrolls inscribed with Torah passages that are traditionally affixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes and places of worship.

Judge and attorneys question potential jurors

Posted April 24, 2023 at 10:50 AM EDT

Judge Robert Colville, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song and defense attorney Matthew Rubenstein, questioned the first two potential jurors on Monday morning, part of a process called voir dire.

The first potential juror, who works as an administrator for UPMC, said she had a family member who had served time in prison for a drug offense. Defense attorney Rubenstein asked several questions about whether the potential juror thought a sentence of life in prison would be considered severe. She said she would be willing to listen to both sides and didn't have a definite opinion on the death penalty.

The second juror questioned broke down in tears when asked why she thought this kind of case might be more deserving of the death penalty than other cases. "Because it was a house of worship. It really should've been a safe space. I just don't know how much more heinous an action could be. I don't."

The juror, a home health aide who cares for a cancer patient, had a tumultuous past, with a brother who died in a car accident in 1997 and a family acquaintance who murdered a teacher. She also had spent time in recovery for substance abuse, and she had several family members who worked for law enforcement.

Neither the defense nor prosecution asked her further questions; it appeared that the juror would likely not be asked to serve.

Jury selection begins, as judge explains death penalty process

Posted April 24, 2023 at 9:27 AM EDT
The Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Gene J. Puskar
The Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

The long process of talking to and selecting jurors for the trial began just before 9 a.m. this morning.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville gave preliminary remarks to the jury that explained the nature of the shooting and what will happen during the course of the trial. This language was predetermined, although the defense for Bowers filed a motion last week to try to alter some of the language to include more favorable language to the defendant.

Colville explained how the death penalty process works, including what factors the jury could take into account to instead impose a punishment of life in imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Bowers sat at the end of the table next to his lawyers, wearing a sweater with a collared shirt underneath, his hair buzzed short.

During jury selection, only two members of the media are allowed in the court room at a time, so most of the media, including WESA watched through a camera system set up in the court room. The media gathered voted to allow the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and a reporter from Channel 11 to be the first in the court today, but media will alternate during breaks.

Why a trial is taking place

Posted April 24, 2023 at 8:22 AM EDT

Anticipating the anguish the trial will surely cause for some locals, leaders in the Jewish community started to prepare last fall. They enlisted University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris to teach public classes on the logistics of the coming proceeding as well as the underlying legal principles.

“The most common question is … ‘Why are we having a trial to determine guilt or innocence when there was one person involved, we know who it was, we know what he did?'” Harris said of the discussions in his course.

But the government has rebuffed the defendant’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. The U.S. Constitution, therefore, gives the defendant the right to a public trial.

“Everybody gets due process, and that has to go for each and every case, including the cases of the people we might think of as the worst of the worst,” Harris said.

Survivors, family members lean on each other before trial

Posted April 24, 2023 at 6:55 AM EDT
Four hands hold a memorial candle.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Carol Black, Sharyn Stein, Deane Root and Michele Rosenthal hold a memorial candle. Their group, Families Bridging Kindness, supports survivors and families affected by mass shootings.

With the federal death penalty trial for the man charged in the shooting set to start next week, survivors and family members are bracing for what could be months of reliving the horror of that day. While court rules will dictate the pattern of the legal proceedings, survivors say there’s no guidebook for their healing journeys.

Michele Rosenthal lost her brothers Cecil and David on Oct. 27, 2018. For her, the stress of the trial is intensified by the attention around it.

“Nobody realizes what happens when something like this happens in your life,” she said. “It’s not just that you lost a loved one. It’s the publicness of it … a trial coming up … commemorations.”

She said it’s been hard to answer questions from her friends about what to expect. Some members of the community have attended classes on the logistics of the coming proceedings taught by a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

But it’s impossible to speculate about how someone might feel hearing new testimony about that day or having to testify themselves. Deane Root — who was heading into Shabbat services when the attack began — is planning to be patient with himself on the days he can’t bear to be in the courtroom.

“Can I stand to be at the courthouse every day for months? Psychologically, no,” he said. “Do I need to be there some of that time? Absolutely. We are there representing people we love; we are there representing a community that loves us.”

Read more about how survivors and family members are preparing for the trial.

The trial starts today. Here's what to expect.

Posted April 24, 2023 at 6:16 AM EDT

The trial of Robert Bowers, which will take place at the federal courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh, is expected to last about three months. Criminal trials usually do not last that long, but capital cases consist of two phases: one to determine whether the defendant is guilty — the guilt phase — and another to determine whether he should be executed — the penalty phase.

A 12-member jury will make these decisions. So when jury selection starts today, lawyers on both sides will thoroughly question potential panelists. This process, called voir dire, is expected to last three weeks.

“The key point is, regardless of what [prospective jurors have] been exposed to, can they genuinely come into court and just listen to the evidence that is presented before them in court and then render a verdict that is just based on the evidence in court?” said Carmen Ortiz, who served as the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts between 2009 and 2017.

Under her leadership, federal prosecutors obtained a death sentence against the man charged in the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013.

Read more how capital trials work.