Trial begins for gunman in massacre at US Tree of Life synagogue

Lawyers for suspect Robert Bowers acknowledge that he entered the synagogue with the intention of killing Jewish people.

Members of Pittsburgh's Jewish community enter a courthouse
Members of Pittsburgh's Jewish community enter the United States federal court in Pittsburgh for the first day of trial for Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, on Tuesday, May 30 [Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo]

The man accused of murdering 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh faces the possibility of the death penalty as a federal trial gets under way.

The trial began on Tuesday in a court in downtown Pittsburgh, with lawyers for the accused gunman, Robert Bowers, acknowledging that he planned the 2018 massacre that shook the country and became the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in US history.

In her opening statement, defence lawyer Judy Clarke said that Bowers went to the Tree of Life synagogue and “shot every person he saw” in pursuit of what she said was an “unthinkable, nonsensical, irrational thought that by killing Jews he would attain his goal”.

Bowers espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric and is said to have targeted the synagogue based on his belief that Jews were helping immigrants come to the United States. That belief echoes the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that has become more widespread among sectors of the US right and conservative media in recent years.

The 50-year-old Bowers faces 63 charges related to the massacre, in which 11 people were killed and seven were injured. The charges include 11 counts each of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

Prosecutors began their case with recordings of 911 calls from the massacre, in which a woman from the synagogue named Bernice Simon says, “We’re being attacked!” Her husband, Sylvan, was among those shot.

Shannon Basa-Sabol, the emergency dispatcher who took the call, testified that she advised Bernice on how to staunch the bleeding. Shortly after, Basa-Sabol said she heard gunfire and screaming as Bernice was also shot.

Both Bernice and Sylvan, aged 84 and 86, respectively, were killed. They were remembered as a compassionate and loving couple.

Like the Simons, many of those killed in the massacre were elderly, a factor that federal prosecutors may use as they attempt to demonstrate that Bowers meticulously planned out the attack and specifically targeted the most vulnerable.

The Tree of Life Synagogue
The Tree of Life Synagogue, lower left, stands in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh [File: Gene J Puskar/AP Photo]

Prosecutors said that Bowers had posted anti-Semitic content online and shouted “All Jews must die!” as he burst into the synagogue on October 27, 2018.

“The depths of the defendant’s malice and hate can only be proven in the broken bodies” of the victims and “his hateful words,” Assistant US Attorney Soo C Song told the jury.

In a filing earlier this year, prosecutors also stated that Bowers expressed hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a nonprofit group that assists refugees and asylum seekers. The organisation’s slogan is “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have depicted Jews as financing and supporting immigration to the US in a plot to undermine the country and the white population, and prosecutors said that Bowers had used social media to call for “violence against Jews”.

Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down.

Bowers has pleaded not guilty, and faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

Lawyers for Bowers have done little to dispute that he carried out the attack, but have argued that a death sentence would be unconstitutional since he suffers from mental health issues, such as schizophrenia.

Members of three different congregations that utilised the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood in Pittsburgh arrived at the court on Tuesday in a school bus, entering together and wiping away tears during the prosecutor’s presentation.

Many family members of the victims have expressed support for a death sentence, but others are divided.

Jewish communities in the US continue to face violent threats and hostile rhetoric. In February, a suspect was charged with a hate crime for allegedly targeting Jews in a shooting outside of a synagogue in Los Angeles, California.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies