Day one of the synagogue shooting trial: Judge Colville begins questioning of potential jurors
Views of death penalty probed
Eight floors above Grant Street, inside the Joseph F. Weis Jr. U.S. Courthouse, the deliverance of justice began in the case involving the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Day one of the trial featured the questioning of potential jurors about the death penalty, their experiences with law enforcement and anticipated hardships if selected for service.
Dressed in a black robe and seated on the bench beside an eagle-topped American flag in Courtroom 8C, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville welcomed seven prospective jurors.
Jury service is among the “highest and most important duties of the U.S.,” Colville said. “The integrity of this process depends on your truthfulness.”
Colville outlined three phases of what could be a “four-month” trial process. Jury selection is expected to take several weeks.
Before dismissing prospective jurors to an adjacent room, Colville instructed the group to avoid discussing the case or the defendant with others.
The judge removed his robe, descended from the bench and sat at a desk between attorneys from both parties.
Individual jurors were asked to reenter the courtroom. Colville stood, extended his hand and greeted each prospective juror before sharing a copy of the individual’s juror questionnaire, a multipage document — completed weeks earlier — with prompts detailing a prospective juror’s views and potential conflicts.
Both Colville and the prospective juror then sat.
Colville reminded each juror that despite the awkwardness involved, the intent was to have a general and pleasant, but “serious,” conversation. In doing so, Colville continued, the court and attorneys could determine a prospective juror’s views on the death penalty and ability to dutifully serve in this case.
“In the eyes of the law, [the defendant] is as innocent as anyone else, as innocent as me,” Colville said. “Can you determine an outcome based solely on the evidence?”
Several prospective jurors signaled an ability to do so. Some openly questioned their likelihood of neutrality.
“I don’t know how much more heinous it could be,” one prospective juror said of the 11 worshippers shot and killed at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018.
Colville reiterated there were “no right or wrong answers” to his questions and that he and the attorneys present were simply trying to determine potential jurors’ views.
At times, Matthew Rubenstein, an attorney for the defendant, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song asked prospective jurors about prior experiences, attitudes regarding the death penalty and whether it was possible to determine an outcome in this case based on the testimony and evidence presented.
The questioning of each prospective juror occurred in a largely empty room. Apart from Colville, those present included officers of the court, attorneys and the defendant, Robert Bowers.
Dressed in black slacks, a light blue shirt and gray crew neck sweater, the middle-aged man with thinning hair spent the day without publicly speaking. At times, he drank from a white foam cup, shuffled papers, took notes and chatted with public defender Michael Novara.
Seated behind several empty benches in the back of the vacuous courtroom were survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting as well as descendants and loved ones of those lost.
Before day one of jury selection was officially called to order at 8:54 a.m. the small group congregated outside the courtroom. Three (Daniel Leger, Deane Root and Rabbi Doris Dyen) wore yarmulkes. As the morning session stretched on, the Jewish group silently sat in the last two benches and listened to Colville and attorneys raise hypotheticals about murder, religious animus, childhood trauma, the defendant’s mental health and potential jurors’ willingness to remain impartial.
Nearly five hours passed between Colville’s initial greeting and his directive to break for lunch. In the interim, members of the media shared two reserved seats in the courtroom. Press representatives were asked to determine who would occupy each space. Local and national reporters decided the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle should have one seat during the initial session of day one.
Before reporters were permitted to enter the courtroom, the public was asked to line up, raise their arms and submit to a light search. The ornate doors to the courtroom opened. The first to enter was Daniel Leger, one of two survivors among the 13 congregants who were shot. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the upcoming Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.