As Trial Nears, Lawyers for Suspect in Tree of Life Massacre Cite Mental Health Issues

In this 2018 file photo, a makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

By Associated Press

March 22, 2023

Robert Bowers has offered to plead guilty to killing 11 people in 2018 at the Pittsburgh synagogue in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

A former truck driver about to face trial for a shooting massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue more than four years ago has schizophrenia and structural and functional brain impairments, his lawyers argued in a public court filing this week.

Lawyers for Robert Bowers told a federal judge they were concerned a prosecution proposal to have their own psychiatric experts examine or evaluate him would be a “broad-ranging, invasive, and constitutionally problematic investigation” into his “life, mind, and body.”

The defense said prosecutors should be limited to looking for evidence that would dispute defense assertions and argued they should not be allowed to investigate every possible aspect of his mental health. A message seeking further comment was left with defense attorneys, and the US attorney’s office in Pittsburgh declined to comment.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin next month in Bowers’ trial for shooting to death 11 people and wounding seven others at the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Oct. 27, 2017 in the nation’s most deadly attack on Jewish people. Bowers has offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

On Monday, they told the US District Judge Robert Colville in a footnote that federal prosecutors had told them a request to withdraw the death penalty had been denied. “It is unclear whether this decision was made by members of the Department of Justice’s Capital Review Committee or the Attorney General,” Bowers’ lawyers wrote.

They said the judge should narrow the scope of any prosecution testing, arguing Bowers’ own lawyers subjected him to “numerous objective test measures,” and there’s no medical or legal justification to repeat them. They also want any prosecution testing to be delayed “unless and until” Bowers is convicted of a crime that could carry the death penalty.

The defense wrote prosecutors in February to say they plan to introduce evidence that Bowers has schizophrenia, epilepsy and brain impairments, findings they say are supported by neuropsychological testing and brain imaging. In the new filing, his lawyers told Colville that prosecutors want to have him examined over several days by a psychiatrist, a neuropsychiatrist, and a neurologist.

Bowers, a Baldwin resident, has pleaded not guilty. After the attack, he traded gunfire with officers and was shot three times before being taken into police custody.

Investigators say he posted on the social media platform Gab about a false conspiracy theory that the Holocaust was a hoax and expressed contempt for a nonprofit Jewish group that aids refugees. 

Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano (Franklin) paid Gab $5,000 in “consulting” fees during his unsuccessful campaign for governor last year, and was interviewed on the website.

At his inauguration in January, Gov. Josh Shapiro, a devout Jew, placed his hand on a stack of three copies of the Hebrew Bible, including one used at Tree of Life on the day of the attack.

Keystone managing editor Patrick Berkery contributed to this report.


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