A federal court jury on Monday again heard nearly five-year-old 911 calls recording the screams, the gunshots and the terror from the Pittsburgh synagogue attack as the U.S. attorney asked jurors to deliver the ultimate penalty for the shooter: death.
Eric Olshan, the top prosecutor in Western Pennsylvania, said 22 people were inside the building on Oct. 27, 2018, when Robert Bowers stormed in with an AR-15 and a heart filled with hate.
Half of those people, he said, never left.
“He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in U.S. history,” the prosecutor said. “And he is proud of it.”
After two months of trial, the end is near in USA v. Robert Bowers. The jury will begin deliberating Tuesday. The choice for jurors is death or life in prison; there is no parole in the federal system.
The defendant, 50, slaughtered 11 worshippers and shot five more people, including three police officers. He did it because he hates Jews.
The prosecution and defense squared off one last time on Monday in addressing jurors to sway them one way or the other on the penalty — Olshan for the government and Judy Clarke for the defense.
Olshan said the case calls for the most severe punishment under the law. He said the defendant planned the attack, even deliberately buying Israeli-made bullets, and carefully selected the date to kill. He carried out the murders methodically against innocent victims and has shown no remorse, then or now.
“He hates Jews even more than he did then,” Olshan said. “He is proud of what he did.”
He said Bowers told a defense expert that he has enjoyed hearing the evidence in the case and that his only regret is that he didn’t kill more Jews.
In his conversations on social media site Gab before the killings, he used the word “kike” more than 400 times and blamed Jews for an “invasion” of foreigners into the U.S. that he feared would replace white people — the “great replacement theory.”
Olshan said that idea did not originate with the defendant but is shared by other white supremacists, refuting the defense argument that he is delusional or mentally ill in holding those views.
Olshan presented smiling photos of the victims juxtaposed with crime-scene photos of their bodies sprawled on the synagogue floor in pools of blood. The government replayed panicked 911 calls. Olshan recounted the lives of each victim, most of them elderly or disabled, as he described the impact of their deaths on those left behind.
“Eleven people. Eleven full lives,” he said. “He took his Jewish hatred and his AR-15 and he turned these beautiful people into what he called his ‘Yiddish dozen.’”
Olshan acknowledged that Bowers suffered from depression as a child, but he denied the defense argument that he suffers from epilepsy or schizophrenia.
He said the defendant knew what he was doing.
“He chose violence,” he said.
Clarke reminded the jury of its duty in coming to a verdict. There is no hung jury, she said, and each juror must make a “deeply moral decision.”
She then launched into the defendant’s history, describing a childhood of neglect and abuse, suicide attempts and an involuntary commitment at 13.
Clarke said he suffered mental illness as a child that continued into adulthood.
“You know, childhood matters,” she said. “Rob’s childhood was nothing short of chaotic.”
She told the jurors to be true to their conscience, consider the “weight” of life and show mercy.
“No one can force you to vote for the death penalty,” she said.
She also asked that the jury “stop the killing.”
In a final rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti said Bowers himself does not want to stop the killing.
“Four-and-a-half years later, he remains filled with hate for Jews,” he said. “No remorse — and he’s proud.” PJC
Related story: Resources are available to ease trauma during synagogue shooting trial.
Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress. He can be reached at email@example.com. 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.