Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers who killed 11 sentenced to death

US federal jury recommends that Robert Bowers, who opened fire at Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, get the death penalty.

Flowers and other items left at a memorial for victims of the Tree of Life synagogue attack
Flowers and other items are left at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following the 2018 shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [File: Alan Freed/Reuters]

A man who opened fire on a synagogue in the United States, killing 11 people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the country’s history, has been sentenced to death.

A 12-member federal jury on Wednesday unanimously ruled that Robert Bowers should be executed for the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018.

The jury found Bowers guilty of dozens of federal hate crimes in June after an emotional trial at the US District Court in Pittsburgh. The 50-year-old was convicted of 63 counts, including 11 counts of obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

The jurors found that Bowers’s attack was motivated by his hatred of Jewish people, and that he chose the Tree of Life synagogue because its location in one of the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the US meant he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear”.

They also found that Bowers — had expressed strong anti-Semitic views online beforehand — lacked remorse. He carried an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle and three Glock handguns during the attack.

The massacre compounded fears of a resurgence of far-right groups and neo-Nazis across the United States and racism-fuelled attacks.

The family of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the attack, and her daughter Andrea Wedner, who was shot and wounded, thanked the jurors and said, “A measure of justice has been served.”

“Returning a sentence of death is not a decision that comes easy, but we must hold accountable those who wish to commit such terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence,” the family said in a written statement.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who hid in a bathroom during the attack, also thanked the jury in a statement, saying, “It is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward.”

The jury’s decision on Wednesday marks the first time since US President Joe Biden took office in January 2020 that federal prosecutors have successfully sought and won the death penalty.

However, it is not clear when, if ever, Bowers will be executed. The US Department of Justice has instated a moratorium on carrying out federal executions while it reviews the death penalty, which Biden pledged to abolish when he was running for the presidency.

In the sentencing phase, prosecutors argued that Bowers had the necessary intent and premeditation to qualify for the death penalty. They presented witnesses and evidence to show he carefully planned the attack and deliberately targeted vulnerable elderly worshippers.

Defence lawyers argued that Bowers suffers from major mental illness, including schizophrenia, and therefore lacked the necessary level of intent.

US District Judge Robert J Colville will hold a formal sentencing hearing for Bowers on Thursday, The New York Times reported, citing court officials.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies