Tree of Life shooter faces death penalty

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue, also home to New Light and Dor Hadash congregations, opened fire, and killed 11 people. According to the ADL, this makes it the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. His case is now going to trial — he has been charged with 63 county and federal charges, 22 of which can merit the death penalty.

The facts of the case are effectively known. There is no real doubt in the minds of the prosecution, defense, or public that Bowers was motivated by antisemitic sentiment to kill worshippers. The trial is less about guilt than it is a referendum on whether the perpetrator deserves the death penalty for his crime.

The defense team will argue that the defendant suffers from major mental illness, including schizophrenia, and that he should receive life in prison. The team includes Judy Clarke, a public attorney who has defended perpetrators of national tragedies (including the Unabomber and the Boston Marathon Bombers) and earning them life in prison as opposed to the death penalty. The defense has unsuccessfully asked for a plea deal in which Bowers would receive life in prison; however federal prosecutors have maintained that the unique facts of this case demand capital punishment. In particular, they point to his extremely clear antisemitic beliefs, reflected in his social media activity; they also point to his lack of remorse for his actions.

Bowers was active in online far-right communities. His motivation for the attack seems to be his genuine belief in white genocide and the great replacement theory, the most fringe version of which claims that Jewish people are intentionally encouraging the settlement of non-white immigrants to reduce, and eventually replace the American white population. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is a Jewish non-profit that provides aid to refugees through legal support and resettlement resources. In a social media post mere hours before the attack, Bowers tiraded, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” According to the criminal complaint, when Bowers was apprehended by law enforcement he "told a SWAT officer that he wanted all Jews to die and also that they [Jews] were committing genocide to his people."

The trial itself will likely last for months. The jury selection process began this past Monday, with each team of lawyers carefully selecting jurors without strong pre-existing feelings on the death penalty. There is a significant push to not sentence Bowers to death, even among those affected by his crimes. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who oversees the congregation of New Light (which shared a building with Tree of Life), gave an impassioned speech at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall the day after the shooting, begging federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. He argued that a lengthy death penalty trial would only prolong the trauma and grief of his congregation. The president of the Dor Hadash congregation made much the same argument in a letter to then Attorney General William Barr, which was signed by members of the congregation that included family members of victims. However, in an open letter to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, the families of nine other victims wrote: "His crimes deserve the death penalty."

The jury selection is expected to last for several more weeks, and the trial itself may not conclude until well into the summer.