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Jury has begun deliberations in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Matt Rourke
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh in 2018.

“Joyce Fienberg … Richard Gottfried … Rose Mallinger … Jerry Rabinowitz … Cecil Rosenthal … David Rosenthal … Bernice Simon … Sylan Simon … Daniel Stein … Melvin Wax … Irving Younger.”

Those were the final words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Hahn in her closing arguments Thursday afternoon for the prosecution in the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting trial. According to Hahn, the names of the 11 victims — who she referred to as "those who could not testify" to the acts of the defendant Robert Bowers — are the final justification for why jurors should "hold him accountable."

Jurors in the trial began deliberating in the guilt phase of the trial at mid-afternoon Thursday after the prosecution and defense both concluded their closing arguments. The 12-person jury will now determine if Bowers is guilty of fatally shooting 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

It’s unclear how long those deliberations will take. Court officials announced at 5 p.m. Thursday that jurors had not reached a verdict and had been dismissed for the day. If they convict Bowers, the trial will then advance to a penalty phase in which the jurors will determine whether or not Bowers should be sentenced to death.

In her remarks to the jury before it began its deliberations, Hahn spent nearly an hour and a half summarizing what the prosecution argued happened at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. As Hahn walked through the eight minutes in which a shooter shot and killed 11 Jewish worshipers, she showed pictures of their bodies, often with pools of blood, splayed out on the floor next to photos of their faces when they were alive.

And at nearly every spot, she emphasized, were sacred items:

Daniel Leger's yarmulke, left on the floor after he'd been shot in the abdomen.

A prayer shawl that Bernice Simon was using to stop the bleeding of her husband, Sylvan, until she herself was shot and killed.

A bullet hole in one prayer book, another prayer book covered in blood, a third prayer book under the leg of a deceased victim.

At the center of the prosecution's arguments in this case is not just that Bowers is the one who committed the crimes but that he did so in the service of a deep hatred of the Jewish people. Bowers has attempted to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, but prosecutors have continued to pursue the case in order to seek a death sentence.

In her opening statement, lead defense attorney Judy Clarke argued that Bowers had been motivated by a hatred of the refugee resettlement group HIAS, not of Jewish people per se. But Hahn tried to undermine that argument. The head of HIAS testified that it is a Jewish organization with clear Jewish references on its website, which Bowers had visited. And, she added that HIAS isn't the largest of nine refugee resettlement groups in the country, but it is the only one whose members were Jewish.

Bowers had posted on the social media website Gab.com for 10 months espousing hatred toward Jews, and, in fact, his lead profile photo was at one time a picture of a Nazi stabbing a Jewish soldier in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” More recently he had changed it to a picture of the number 1488, a white supremacist reference that expresses support for Hitler and a 14-word white supremacist credo.

Hahn walked through evidence that she said showed how calculating Bowers had been. He deleted contacts on his phone. He set his computer to erase itself 200 minutes after he left his house to head to the Tree of Life Synagogue. Right before he entered, he posted one last time on Gab. And at each point of the act, he had an opportunity to see the damage he had done to people and stop.

But instead, Hahn said, he stepped over and around dead bodies on his way to "hunt" more Jews. After a failed escape attempt in which he exchanged gunfire with police, he went back into the synagogue and shot his rifle at Rose Mallinger and Andrea Wedner, who were hiding under the pews, and then executed Bernice Simon. Their screams could be heard in 911 calls played in court. Bowers didn’t waste bullets, Hahn said; nearly every bullet hole was found near a victim.

Instead of then turning himself in, prosecutors argued, Bowers hid in a pitch-dark upstairs children's classroom and moved boxes and chairs in the way of potential officers. He hid behind a corner for nearly an hour, waiting for the moment when SWAT officer Timothy Matson entered. He shot Matson seven times and shot SWAT officer Anthony Burke in the hand as Burke tried to pull Matson to safety. He waited and shot at SWAT officers again until he himself was injured and ran out of ammunition.

It was only then, Hahn said, that Bowers gave himself up. And when he did, he told officers, who relayed his words over their police radio:

"All these Jews need to die."

Prior to the start of closing arguments, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville spent more than an hour giving instructions to the jury. Hahn spent a good portion of her closing arguments methodically going through each of the 63 charges Bowers has been accused of and explaining the evidence the prosecution presented in its effort to prove his guilt.

Defense says Bowers was killing to stop refugees, not Jews

In its closing arguments, Robert Bowers’ defense team argued that the prosecution had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowers had gone in to kill Jewish people.

Instead, attorney Elise Long said, Bowers began posting more and more on his Gab.com account about HIAS, a refugee resettlement group, in the final weeks before the shooting in the synagogue. And shortly before the shooting, he posted: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people be slaughtered. Screw your optics. I'm going in."

When Bowers was captured, the defense argued, he didn’t just speak about Jews — officers said they also heard him say:

"I have to take action, they are killing our kids"

"These people are committing genocide on my people"


"Invaders are committing genocide on our people"

In a closing argument that lasted about 20 minutes, Long said these kinds of statements — along with some of Bowers’ posts on Gab.com in October 2018 — show that “he was motivated by the nonsensical and irrational thought that his actions would somehow, someway save the lives of children, prevent genocide or stop immigrants,” and not to stop Jews from worshipping.

Long argued that the government’s decision to try Bowers in federal court for hate crimes gave the government more of a burden to prove Bower’s motivation than it would have faced if Bowers had simply been tried for homicide in state court.

This won’t be “very satisfying” for jurors in the wake of the tragedy that transpired, she said, “but these are the charges the federal government has brought and the decisions you have been asked to make.”

But in a 20-minute rebuttal, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan said the judge had instructed the jury that Bowers didn’t have to be motivated by only one reason when he entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in order to be found guilty — just that it had to be the “determinative” reason. Bower’s hundreds and thousands of references to “Jews” on Gab.com overwhelmed a handful of references to HIAS, Olshan said.

The defense’s argument was based on a mistaken view of antisemitism, Olshan said.

“Nobody just says, ‘I hate Jews’ for no reason,” Olshan said. “There is always some reason. And for this defendant, there were many reasons.”

Olshan said the “common sense” of jurors should enable them to see that Bowers wasn’t focused on refugee resettlement on Oct. 27, 2018.

“Did he go to a refugee resettlement meeting? Did he go to the southern border to stop Jews from helping refugees? … Did he go to the HIAS office in Maryland? No,” he said. “The defendant got in his car and drove to none of those places. Instead, he drove 30 minutes from where he lived, to the center of the Jewish universe in the Pittsburgh region.”

And even if the jurors decided to focus narrowly on a few posts about HIAS, Olshan added, the agency’s mission to support refugees is inherent in the Jewish religion. On the day of the shooting, the Tree of Life congregation had plans to study a passage of the Torah about Abraham and Sarah that commanded them to welcome outsiders to worship, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers testified during the trial.

Then Olshan held up two pieces of Irving Younger’s black yarmulke — what several witnesses referred to as a daily reminder to Jews of the presence of God. The yarmulke was “no longer a reminder of God's presence, but a reminder of what the defendant — that man” Olshan said, pointing to Bowers — “did to Irving Younger and what he tried to do to many others on Oct. 27.”

After Olshan’s comments, Judge Colville sent the 12 jurors to deliberate and sent the five alternate jurors to a separate room. Jury deliberations will resume Friday morning.

Oliver Morrison