Some Tree Of Life Members Believe Death Penalty For Shooter At Odds With Jewish Faith

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 25, 2019 7:07 am

Federal prosecutors announced in August that they will pursue the death penalty against the man accused of killing 11 people 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.

"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 is 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.

While the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, calls for capital punishment for a range of offenses, later writings in the Jewish Talmud condemn the practice in almost all cases as "bloodthirsty."

"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.

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.

'My moral position ... is supposedly not part of the mix'

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.

Five died from the attack, and more than 260 were injured. 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 opposed 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 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 said the federal government also strives to apply those standards uniformly across states.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the alleged shooter who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue last year, but some people believe capital punishment conflicts with the Jewish faith.
SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

"You really shouldn't be having different standards between Texas and Pennsylvania and Minnesota," he said.

University of California, Hastings law professor Rory Little added, "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 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. A jury would decide whether to sentence him to death.

No trial date has been set.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, prosecutors want the death penalty for the man accused of killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year. To those prosecutors, that's a fitting penalty for a man motivated by hatred of Jews. To some survivors, an execution would conflict with their principles. An-Li Herring reports from our station WESA.

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors have to consult with victims of crimes and surviving family members before deciding whether to seek capital punishment. But Rory Little, who previously served on the U.S. Department of Justice's capital case review committee, says that's only one factor a prosecutor must consider.

RORY LITTLE: 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.

HERRING: Little says if Bowers is found guilty and victims choose to give impact statements at sentencing, jurors could hear from those who oppose the death penalty. The jury would decide whether he's sentenced to death. Judy Yanowitz, who worshipped at the Tree of Life synagogue, says she's morally opposed to capital punishment.

JUDY YANOWITZ: I think it comes from a basic value in a human life and the possibility that you can ask for forgiveness.

HERRING: I asked Yanowitz whether she could find it within herself to forgive the accused shooter.

YANOWITZ: I don't know the answer to that.

HERRING: Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a congregation that was housed at Tree of Life. At a recent news conference, a reporter asked if he had thoughts on the decision to seek the death penalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY MYERS: No. I have complete faith in the Department of Justice to act professionally and do the right thing.

HERRING: But many Jewish leaders say their faith generally condemns capital punishment.

SETH ADELSON: (Speaking Hebrew).

HERRING: Rabbi Seth Adelson of Pittsburgh's Congregation Beth Shalom, just blocks from Tree of Life, reads in Hebrew from the Jewish Talmud. While the Torah calls for capital punishment for a range of offenses, Adelson says later writings denounce the practice in almost all cases as, quote, "bloodthirsty."

ADELSON: We really believe that it's not up to us as humans to take a life, that really only God can do that.

HERRING: Yet, Adelson acknowledges some Jews believe in capital punishment. Stephen Cohen worshipped at Tree of Life and dreads the publicity a death penalty trial would bring. He says there are congregants who want the defendant to be executed. But he worries that a lengthy trial could prompt years of appeals and be painful for victims.

STEPHEN COHEN: Because that's the way our system works. That's my objection - it is not to the death penalty. It is the fact that we no longer do swift and certain justice.

HERRING: Cohen asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr not to pursue the death penalty, as did leaders and other members of two of the three congregations that were housed at Tree of Life. They wanted Barr to opt for a plea deal that would give Bowers a life sentence. But prosecutors say the synagogue attack was especially heinous because it was motivated by the alleged shooter's hatred for Jews. So while some of the attack survivors oppose the death penalty on religious grounds, prosecutors say they'll seek execution in part to defend religious freedom. No trial date has been set.

For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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