Pittsburgh Synagogue Gunman Formally Sentenced to Death

In this combo image made from photos provided by the United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania are the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.. top row, from left, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, and David Rosenthal; bottom row, from left, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger. (United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania via AP)

By Associated Press

August 3, 2023

Before imposing the sentence on Robert Bowers, Judge Robert Colville said “I have nothing specific that I care to say to Mr. Bowers. I am however convinced there is nothing I could say to him that might be meaningful.”

PITTSBURGH — The man who killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue was formally sentenced to death Thursday, one day after a jury determined that capital punishment was appropriate for the perpetrator of the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

US District Judge Robert Colville imposed the sentence on Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver whose vicious antisemitism led him to shoot his way into a place of worship and target people for practicing their faith.

“I have nothing specific that I care to say to Mr. Bowers,” Colville said, before issuing the formal sentence. “I am however convinced there is nothing I could say to him that might be meaningful.”

Bowers, who swapped the casual civil clothes he wore throughout the trial for a red jail suit, chose not to speak. He spent the entire hearing looking at and shuffling through papers and writing, and refused to look at those he victimized in the eye, even when invited to do so.

Bowers, from suburban Baldwin, ranted about Jews online before carrying out the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. He told police at the scene that “all these Jews must die” and has since expressed pride in the killings.

Jurors were unanimous in finding that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jews, and that he chose Tree of Life for its location in one of the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the nation so he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.” They also found that Bowers lacked remorse.

The jury rejected defense claims that Bowers has schizophrenia and that his delusions about Jewish people spurred the attack.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman called the jury’s verdict “appropriate and just” in a statement. 

 “Today, I am remembering the victims who lost their lives in the Tree of Life massacre — eleven lives lost because of antisemitism and hate,” Fetterman said. “I hope that today’s sentencing decision is a step toward justice and healing for the families of the victims, the survivors of the attack, and the broader Jewish community in Pittsburgh and across the country.”

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), who co-chairs the PA Jewish Legislative Caucus, also released a statement Wednesday, in which he said he respects “the wisdom of a jury who has found this act of hate and violence abhorrent and beyond the bounds of rehabilitation.”

“This verdict doesn’t restore the lives of the people lost to hate,” Frankel said. “We will forever mourn them, and the loss is sewn into the fabric of our community, just as the building on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues attests to both the tragedy – and hopefully – the path forward in healing and education.”

“My small part in this is to continue to fight against hate, against hate crimes, and try to compel the full force of our government against this viciousness, this antisemitism, and these attacks against targeted communities.”

Grieving families confronted Bowers at Thursday’s hearing before Colville pronounced the sentence, describing the pain and suffering he had inflicted, and calling him evil and cowardly.

“Mr. Bowers, you met my beloved husband in the kitchen. Your callous disregard for the person he was repulses me,” testified Peg Durachko, wife of 65-year-old Dr. Richard Gottfried, a dentist who was shot and killed. “Your hateful act took my soulmate from me.”

Mark Simon, whose parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, were killed in the attack, testified he still has their bloodied prayer shawl. He said he remains haunted by the 911 call placed by his mother, whom Bowers shot while she was on the line.

“My parents died alone, without any living soul to comfort them or to hold their hand in their last moments,” said Simon, condemning “that defendant” and urging the judge to show him no mercy.

“You will never be forgiven. Never,” Simon told Bowers.

It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, who pledged during his 2020 campaign to end capital punishment. Biden’s Justice Department has placed a moratorium on federal executions and has declined to authorize the death penalty in hundreds of new cases where it could apply. But federal prosecutors said death was the appropriate punishment for Bowers, citing the vulnerability of his mainly elderly victims and his hate-based targeting of a religious community.

An appeal is expected, meaning that Bowers will likely spend years on federal death row even if the Justice Department lifts the moratorium on executions.

Bowers, who was armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, also shot and wounded seven, including five responding police officers.

He was convicted in June of 63 federal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.

In addition to Gottfried and the Simons, the deceased victims were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Rose Mallinger, 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; and Irving Younger, 69.

The judge said he couldn’t begin to understand the pain of the survivors and loved ones of those killed in the attack.

“May their memory be a blessing,” Colville said from the bench.

Keystone senior community editor Patrick Berkery contributed to this report.

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