Closing arguments made in Tree of Life synagogue shooting case

Deliberations are under way in a case centred on the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 congregants.

A memorial for the victims of the shooting
A makeshift memorial in 2018 recognises the 11 people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [File: Alan Freed/Reuters]

Prosecutors have delivered their closing arguments against a man accused of turning a United States synagogue into a “hunting ground” in a 2018 shooting that left 11 people dead.

A 50-year-old former trucker named Robert Bowers faces 63 criminal counts for carrying out a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. Bowers faces a possible death sentence if found guilty.

But while Bowers’s defence used Thursday’s closing arguments to cast doubt on his motives, federal prosecutors underscored the trucker’s history of anti-Jewish statements as they pursued a conviction for hate-crime charges and the obstruction of religious exercise.

“He is filled with hatred for Jews,” prosecutor Mary Hahn said, noting Bowers had a long record of engaging with and promoting anti-Semitic and white supremacist content online. “That is what propelled him to act.”

Defence lawyers have done little to dispute that Bowers carried out the attack. In her closing statement, public defender Elisa Long admitted that there was “no justification” for Bowers’s actions and acknowledged the survivors’ pain.

But, she argued, Bowers was not necessarily motivated by anti-Semitic hate or disrupting religious activity.

Rather, she said, Bowers had been blinded by “nonsensical and irrational” beliefs about immigration, which he associated with the Jewish refugee nonprofit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The organisation’s slogan is “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee”.

Long described Bowers as adhering to the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the idea that white people are being replaced by non-white immigrants. She said Bowers placed Jewish organisations at the centre of this conspiracy theory.

Racist myths portraying Jewish people as masterminds of nefarious conspiracies are longstanding staples of anti-Semitic rhetoric, and prosecutors dismissed the defence’s argument as a distinction without a difference.

Lawyer Eric Olshan reminded jurors that the attack took place in “the centre of the Jewish universe”: the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood in Pittsburgh. He described Bowers as “hunting, looking for Jews to kill”.

Prosecutor Mary Hahn told the jury that Bowers — who was apprehended after a shootout that injured five police officers — allegedly told law enforcement that “all of these Jews need to die”.

Many of those killed were elderly people, remembered by loved ones and friends as thoughtful and kind members of their community.

Earlier this week, jurors heard harrowing accounts from people who survived the attack, including a woman who kept still as her mother died by her side during the massacre.

“I just laid on the floor and didn’t move in case he was there or was coming back. I didn’t want him to know I was alive,” said Andrea Wedner, whose 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, was killed in the attack.

“I kissed my fingers,” Wedner said of the moment her mother died, “and I touched my fingers to her skin.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies