The defendant in the synagogue shooting case has been institutionalized for psychiatric issues and has attempted suicide, one of his lawyers told a federal court jury on Monday.
Attorney Michael Burt introduced those revelations as part of a defense effort to bolster the contention that the defendant is impaired and shouldn’t be executed for the massacre in the Tree of Life building.
Burt said in opening statements in the eligibility phase of the trial that Robert Bowers, 50, suffers from “chronic mental illness” that led directly to the mass killing on Oct. 27, 2018.
He said various doctors will testify about brain scans that show structural abnormalities.
The defendant, he said, is schizophrenic and suffers from epilepsy. His psychiatric problems date to his childhood and left him “unable to make proper decisions based on his delusional beliefs.”
Bowers was convicted two weeks ago of slaughtering 11 worshippers from three congregations at the synagogue building. The parties are now squaring off over whether he is eligible for the death penalty.
Prosecutors argue that he is and said they’ll show why.
To get a death sentence, they have to prove that the defendant acted with intent. They also have to introduce at least one “aggravating factor” and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti said the government can present many. In addition to those he killed, he said, the defendant created a “grave risk” to a dozen others he tried to kill. Rivetti also said the defendant carefully planned the attacks, including wiping clean his computer and phone to cover his tracks. And, Rivetti said, he targeted vulnerable victims who couldn’t escape because of age or infirmity.
Prosecutors argue that the defendant was motivated by his hatred of Jews and hunted them down in their place of worship.
“He killed victim after victim with his AR-15 rifle,” Rivetti said. “He came to kill and he was filled with hate.”
Rivetti said the defendant’s own lawyers said there is no question that he planned the killings.
He said the defendant made “decision after decision” in targeting the victims, from his online rantings against Jews to driving a half-hour from his Baldwin apartment to the synagogue with a car filled with weapons and the systematic, room-to-room slayings.
When a SWAT team officer asked him why he’d gone on the rampage, Rivetti said, the defendant answered: “All these Jews need to die.”
Rivetti said the issue at hand is simple: Did he intend to kill?
“That is easily proven,” he said.
Rivetti also noted that the defense lawyers would likely introduce mental health evidence. If they do, he said, “we will respond.”
Burt did just that and named a series of UPMC and other doctors who will testify about the defendant’s supposed abnormal brain function.
Later in the morning, the prosecution began presenting relatives of those killed to establish their vulnerability on the day of the murders.
The first was Diane Rosenthal, sister of David and Cecil Rosenthal, mentally challenged brothers in their 50s whom the defendant gunned down.
Rosenthal, who lives in Chicago, said her brothers functioned on the level of preschoolers.
They couldn’t tie their shoes, they couldn’t read, loud noises scared them. Both especially loved the weekly worship services at Tree of Life.
“That,” she said, “was their safe space.”
The eligibility phase of the trial is expected to last one or two weeks. If the jury decides unanimously that the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, a third trial phase will begin to determine whether or not he will be sentenced to death. PJC
Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He 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.