Law professor readies community for trial of accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter
David Harris is preparing local residents by explaining U.S. law and criminal justice
With just a few months until the April start date of the trial of the man accused of murdering 11 Jews during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life building, legal scholar David Harris is aiming to prepare the community.
Through two classes on U.S. law and criminal justice, he is hoping to ready local residents for a complex and arduous legal process.
“The whole objective here is to help the community understand,” Harris said.
Though the backdrop to Harris’ Feb. 15 and 22 sessions is the upcoming trial, the University of Pittsburgh law professor isn’t planning on addressing the case specifically.
“I'm not part of the prosecution team,” he said. “I don't have any special information from them or deep learning about the case itself. The objective is to show people how things work and a general sense of what to expect. The idea is that knowledge is power: We can empower ourselves to understand what will come, and that will help us be stronger and more resilient as the events unfold.”
Harris said the idea for the talks came from Maggie Feinstein and Ranisa Davidson of the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
Feinstein contacted Harris several months ago after recognizing the trial would raise “a lot of intellectual and emotional questions,” she said.
Various programs and organizations will be providing tools for managing emotional aspects, but it was less certain whether resources were available to address pragmatic and theoretical legal issues, Feinstein said.
“Justice is a personal decision,” she explained, “but we want people to have information about how our legal system is viewing justice in this situation.”
There’s a need for communal empowerment, Feinstein said, and Harris is well-suited to facilitate it.
Born to a large Jewish family in Chicago, Harris and his wife are members of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh and Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, Michigan (where his daughter Alicia Harris serves as rabbi). He is the Sally Ann Semenko Endowed Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and has spent decades addressing the interplay between law and community.
Harris’ scholarship and teaching addresses search and seizure law, police behavior, and law enforcement and race. His podcast, “Criminal Injustice,” ran for six years and featured interviews with police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, journalists, policy experts and authors. The 151-episode series was geared toward a general audience and generated thousands of listeners each month.
Given his scholarship, acumen and ability to distill complex legal issues into easily digestible concepts, Harris is regularly featured on National Public Radio and has appeared on The Today Show and Dateline NBC as well as in the pages of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
“I do my full share of legal journal articles and speaking at academic conferences and so forth,” he said. “But I have always prided myself on being able to help people understand how the system operates…so that we can all see what we have in the legal system, why it works well or poorly, and why we see the results in the things that we do.”
Harris said he immediately acquiesced to offering sessions about U.S. law and criminal justice as a lead-up to the trial.
“Being from the community myself, the idea of doing a service for those who had been affected either very directly, or more like my family, to help us all understand what is coming, is something I deeply value,” he said.
Harris added that he felt a “duty” to share his insights and expertise.
“That piece of Pirkei Avot, which is really having its season right now with Governor Shapiro…I really do believe it,” Harris said.
The Mishnaic text Harris referenced states, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.”
Harris said that rabbinic teaching has long driven his desire for communal betterment, and he’ll use whatever talents and expertise he has to present compelling and explanatory material as well as leave “plenty of time for people to ask questions.”
Feinstein said that by attending Harris’ classes either in person at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Jewish Community Center or online, Pittsburghers will be better prepared for what’s ahead.
“Through learning,” Harris said, “which is something that we as a community have always put a high premium on — whether we're talking about the community of Pittsburgh with its great universities or the Jewish community which has a tradition of learning going back literally thousands of years — learning and studying and teaching these things can actually help us understand our lives and our place in the world, and help us going forward.
“We have to understand that we not only experienced this trauma individually, but we experienced it collectively. I want people to know that it's a good thing to come together collectively, to support each other and to be supported ourselves,” he continued. “I hope that folks will take this opportunity to be together. I promise I'll do the best I can to help people understand what's coming. The legal system is, you know, opaque to most people. It's a black box. There's a lot of weird terminology. We'll break it all down. We'll make it understandable to everybody so that we can all know how to understand the events ahead for us collectively.” PJC
U.S. Law and Criminal Justice will meet on Feb. 15 and 22 from 6:30-8 p.m. at the 10.27 Healing Partnership and online. Registration is required.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.