At Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, attorneys review jurors amid case's broad local impact
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.
The defense challenged some potential jurors because they know people who were too closely impacted by the tragedy, including members of the Tree of Life congregation. Other potential jurors were challenged by defense attorneys who contended that their views on the death penalty were too intense or rigid to enable them to make a fair judgment in the case. The court requires any juror selected to be open to imposing the death penalty and also to be open to considering mitigating evidence from the accused shooter's life.
The prospect of a long trial also seemed likely to be a hardship for some jurors more than others. A woman who works for UPMC said she would still receive her salary if she is selected. But another potential juror who works an hourly union job said it wasn't clear how he would be able to earn a living to support his son.
One juror, who described several examples of trauma and challenges in her life, became extremely emotional when she described the shooting and why she thought the shooter should be more deserving of the death penalty.
"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,” she said. Lawyers for both the defense and prosecution appeared to agree that she didn't appear to be able to serve impartially on the jury.
A Pittsburgh trial
Several of the potential jurors said they worked in the city's largest industry — health care — as administrators, home health care aides and nurses, even as the court proceeding took place in front of a large painting that depicted workers from Pittsburgh's steel industry. Every juror said they had some familiarity with the case through the media.
"Like most Pittsburghers, I can recall where I was when I found out" about the shooting, one juror said.
One potential juror said he had worked at the Tree of Life synagogue a couple of times as a union mechanic. He said he believes 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 repercussions for actions," he said. Lawyers for the defense motioned to strike that juror from consideration, citing his strong preference for the death penalty. Prosecutors objected to the motion.
Another potential juror disclosed that a new friend of hers appeared in the HBO documentary, “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.” The juror, an ICU nurse for UPMC, said she believes she could still be impartial when hearing evidence in the case.
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 have not discussed the incident or her feelings about it in depth. Lawyers for the defense moved to strike him as well because of his connection to the synagogue. The prosecution opposed the motion.
Both the defense and prosecutors are allowed to prevent up to 20 potential jurors from being seated on the jury for the trial. But there are an unlimited number of jurors that can be prevented from being seated for a good reason or “for cause,” such as an inability to be impartial in the case.
Several of the potential jurors said they belonged to churches or religions, including the Catholic Church, which is opposed to the death penalty. But the jurors largely said they could make their decisions based on the law anyway. One potential juror said his wife is Jewish and works for a Jewish organization, but he hadn’t told her the case for which he’d been called for jury duty and didn’t know her views on the death penalty.
“Her being Jewish, I'm sure that has an impact on her thoughts, but I’m not quite sure what those would be,” he said.
Colville has not ruled on any of the motions to remove jurors for cause.
The potential jurors were visible only from behind on the court’s video system, used by media observers used to watch the proceeding. They were referred to by a number rather than their names.
Bowers wore a gray sweater and blue shirt during the selection hearing. He appeared engaged, taking notes and conferring with one of his lawyers, according to a pool reporter in the courtroom. Bowers appeared in court in March when potential jurors filled out questionnaires and received instructions as well, but during the previous four years he had waived his right to appear in court as his case had made its way to trial.
Also present in court were Dan Leger, one of the people who was wounded in the shooting but survived, and the two sons of Rose Mallinger, who was killed. The victims were members of three congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life / Or L'Simcha — who were worshiping in the synagogue when the shooting occurred. Also killed in the shooting were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.