Prosecutors to Seek Death Penalty for Accused Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter

Court papers say man who shot 11 people to death targeted Tree of Life 'to maximize devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes and instill fear within Jewish communities'

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018.
Matt Rourke/AP

U.S. prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a Pennsylvania man accused of bursting into a Pittsburgh synagogue last year with a semi-automatic rifle and shooting 11 people to death, according to court papers filed on Monday.

Robert Bowers, 46, shouted "all Jews must die" as he fired on congregants gathered for a Sabbath service at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, authorities said.

Bowers has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to a 63-count indictment and is awaiting trial. The charges include using a firearm to commit murder and obstruction of free exercise of religious belief resulting in death, the court filing said.

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"Robert Bowers expressed hatred and contempt toward members of the Jewish faith and his animus toward members of the Jewish faith played a role in the killings," prosecutors said.

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack ever on Jewish Americans in the United States.

The synagogue is a fixture in Pittsburgh's historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, which is home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in the United States.

Bowers targeted that location "to maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes and instill fear within the local, national and international Jewish communities," prosecutors said in court papers.

An attorney for Bowers, death penalty specialist Judy Clarke, did not immediately return calls or an email seeking comment.

'Justice will be served'

The Tree of Life synagogue hosted multiple Jewish congregations.

Dor Hadash, one of the congregations that was attacked and whose name means New Generation in English, expressed disappointment in the decision to seek the death penalty. 

Instead, attorneys for Bowers and federal prosecutors should have reached a plea agreement that would see him receive a life prison sentence, Dor Hadash said in a statement. 

"It would have prevented the attacker from getting the attention and publicity that will inevitably come with a trial, and eliminated any possibility of further trauma that could result from a trial and protracted appeals," it said. 

Separately, a spokesman for Tree of Life said in an email the congregation "does not have a statement on this matter; we have confidence that justice will be served." 

Bowers targeted a number of people who were particularly vulnerable because of their advanced age, and he demonstrated a lack of remorse after the mass shooting, federal prosecutors said in court papers.

Among those killed were a 97-year-old woman and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before the gunman, who was armed with an assault-style rifle and three handguns, was shot by police at the synagogue and surrendered.

Bowers, who lived in a Pittsburgh suburb, posted anti-Semitic comments on right-wing social-media websites, including a post on the morning of the shooting in which he decried the work of a U.S. Jewish charity, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The mass shooting followed a rise in the number of hate crimes and the number of hate groups in the United States, according to separate reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.