The sentencing phase of the convicted Pittsburgh synagogue shooter continued Thursday with more testimony from clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield, an expert witness for the defense, who had reviewed hospital, school and social services records to form an assessment of the defendant’s life history.
She also based her assessment on interviews with his mother and several other people who knew the defendant, but she did not interview the defendant himself.
Porterfield detailed the shooter’s unstable childhood, troubled teen years, struggles in adulthood and his family’s mental health issues.
The defense hopes the jury finds at least one negative episode in the defendant’s life compelling enough to mitigate a sentence of death.
Porterfield testified the defendant, now 50, had a number of adverse early life experiences, beginning in utero, when his mother was purportedly abused by his father. The defendant’s childhood, the psychologist said, was marked by instability and physical and emotional neglect. She referenced research showing that “repetitive traumatic stressors” can be linked to negative outcomes in adulthood.
As a youth, she said, the defendant experienced seven “traumatic stressors”: physical neglect; emotional neglect; mental illness in the household; domestic violence; divorce; parental death; and substance abuse in the family.
Defense attorney Elisa A. Long displayed photos of the shooter as a child and teen as the witness discussed several episodes in his childhood, running the gamut from elementary school teachers concerned about his behavior and urging intervention to purported suicide ideations and attempts beginning at the age of 10.
His parents divorced when he was a baby, Porterfield said. His father abandoned the family, was later arrested for rape, then committed suicide when the defendant was 7. The defendant began doing poorly in school and was frequently absent, although he scored in the upper 90th percentile on standardized tests.
Beginning in middle school, he became “completely out of control,” Porterfield said. He had a fraught relationship with his mother, and at 13 he physically threatened her and was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. After about nine months at various treatment facilities, he was discharged and returned home, but his domestic situation had not improved and recommendations for individual and family therapy were ignored.
At ages 16 and 17, he was committed briefly to psychiatric institutions after additional suicide attempts.
His deterioration continued, Porterfield said, and he failed out of school in 11th grade. After that, he worked “mostly low-paying, short-lived jobs,” she said. He did, however, work for 14 years as a delivery driver for Potomac Bakery. He lived over the bakery in a subsidized apartment, but was evicted in 2004 when he was fired for stealing money.
After losing his job, apartment and phone, Porterfield said, he “lapsed into crisis.” She pointed to records that he had put a gun in his mouth and called the police to say he was suicidal, and then spent three days at St. Clair Hospital.
On cross-examination, though, prosecutor Nicole Vasquez Schmitt cited the defendant’s own recollection of that event — recorded in reports from the prosecution’s expert witnesses who conducted mental health examinations on him before the trial. The defendant told those doctors that he feigned the suicide attempt so he could go to the hospital and have a place to stay and make phone calls for a few days.
Porterfield traced the trajectory of the shooter’s life after leaving St. Clair, including opioid addiction and depression. But she also testified that he got a commercial trucking license in 2008 and worked for two trucking companies. He also served as a home health aide, including as a caregiver for his grandfather.
The psychologist concluded that the defendant had a “heavy genetic risk” of serious mental illness because of the mental illness of his relatives, including his mother, Barbara Bolt, and his father, Randall Bowers.
But on cross-examination, Porterfield admitted that Bolt wasn’t sure that Randall Bowers was the defendant’s father because there were a lot of men in her life at the time.
Porterfield concluded that the shooter had “untreated mental illness” and was “barely able to function.”
“He did not get the care and intervention he needed,” she said, and “his mental health deteriorated over the course of his life.”
On cross-examination, Schmidt noted that the defendant recalled some of the purported adverse events that Porterfield relied on in her report differently, and didn’t remember some of them occurring at all.
Porterfield also admitted on cross-examination that while experiencing adverse childhood events can be a risk factor for negative outcomes in adulthood, that is not always the case. She agreed with Schmidt’s statements that there are “lots of people with bad childhoods who become successful adults” and that “having been traumatized does not predispose someone to traumatize others.”
Another witness for the defense, Deanna Bowers, testified Thursday afternoon. Deanna Bowers, who lives in California, was married to Randall Bowers’ brother. She testified that her husband, who died in 2019, told her that he and his siblings grew up in a dysfunctional household with an abusive father.
But on cross-examination, she testified that although Randall Bowers had a troubled life, other siblings went on to become productive and well-respected members of the community.
The trial will continue Monday, July 24. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the 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.