Legal experts help demystify upcoming Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial
10/27 pre-trialHere's why the trial is expected to last three months

Legal experts help demystify upcoming Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial

“We hold dear our values of every person getting due process,” Harris said, “whether he deserves it or not. It’s a question of what we consider justice.”

Judge gavel, scales of justice and law books in court. Photo by BrianAJackson via iStock
Judge gavel, scales of justice and law books in court. Photo by BrianAJackson via iStock

Four-and-a-half years after the massacre at the Tree of Life building, jury selection for the alleged shooter’s trial is scheduled to begin on April 24.

And while the gears of justice are known to grind slowly, the long wait between the murder of 11 Jews celebrating Shabbat at three congregations — Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life Congregation — has left many angry and confused. So has the estimated length of the trial: three months.

The defendant faces 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes.

Duquesne University law Professor Bruce Ledewitz said the trial is expected to last so long because this is a federal death penalty case.

Ledewitz teaches state and federal constitutional law and jurisprudence. He co-founded the Western Pennsylvania Coalition Against the Death Penalty and served from 1985-1990 as secretary of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“This case illustrates perfectly one of the flaws in the death penalty that people do not understand,” he said. “It turns what would be an ordinary case into celebrity events. Everybody is being extremely careful. If there were no death penalty, the federal government wouldn’t have gone after this guy.”

The alternative, he said, would have been a homicide case in state court.

“He would have been convicted a long time ago,” Ledewitz said.

The federal death penalty is a complicated system that federal prosecutors and judges have little experience with, Ledewitz said. He contrasted it to the state system where “they do homicide cases every day, and death penalty cases not infrequently.”

From 1988 — the year the federal death penalty was reinstated — and 2021, only 79 defendants have been sentenced to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. By comparison, from the time Pennsylvania enacted its death penalty statute in 1978, until 2015, the commonwealth sentenced 408 prisoners to death.

David Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko Endowed Chair and professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees that the three-month timetable for the trial is because it is a capital case.

“For a death penalty trial, there are certain procedures and a whole different way of running a trial than in a regular, non-capital case,” he said.

Harris recently taught two community courses offered by the 10.27 Healing Partnership to help cut through the inherent confusion in the legal system on Feb. 15 and Feb. 22.

The notoriety of the case presents challenges, Harris said, pointing to the need to select an impartial jury and the right of the defendant to a fair trial.

“We hold dear our values of every person getting due process,” Harris said, “whether he deserves it or not. It’s a question of what we consider justice.”

Ledewitz said that it will be difficult to seat a jury, which is why 1,500 potential jurors began filling out questionnaires several weeks ago. Although Ledewitz has not seen the questionnaire, he expects many of the questions will eliminate some people quickly. Questions might include whether a potential juror’s spouse is a police officer, if they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime, or if they know the prosecutor.

Harris said that it’s going to be a tall order to seat a jury.

“We need 12, and probably four alternates,” he said. “It will be tougher than usual to find 12 people that say, ‘I’ll follow the evidence wherever it goes. I haven’t made up my mind about whether there is reasonable doubt, and I’m going to be fair. I’m going to follow the judge’s instructions and listen to the evidence.’”

Adding to the difficulty, Harris said, will be identifying people who are open to sentencing someone to death.

A death penalty case, he explained, is broken down into at least two separate phases; the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting case will include three separate phases.

The first part, Harris said, is where guilt or innocence is decided. If the defendant is found guilty, the next part of the trial, to be decided by the same judge and jury, would determine whether there were “aggravating factors” that would qualify the defendant for the possibility of the death penalty.

Ledewitz said numerous aggravating factors determine if a defendant is eligible for a death sentence.

For example, he said, the prosecution could show there was a death during the commission of another crime; that there was a previous conviction of a violent felony; that there was a previous conviction of an offense for which a sentence of death is authorized; grave risk of death to additional persons; a heinous, cruel or depraved manner in committing the offense; substantial planning and premeditation; or the vulnerability of the victim.

If the jury decides the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, a third phase will take place where the prosecution will offer victim impact statements and the defense will offer factors that might mitigate the death penalty.

Harris said that examples of mitigating factors in a death penalty case could include impaired mental capacity, evidence of an abusive childhood or duress.

No matter how one feels about the death penalty, Ledewitz said, the time it’s taken for the trial to begin is problematic.
“This is justice denied,” he said. “Not only is justice denied — because justice delayed is justice denied — but people have had to live with this all these years when it should have been over years ago.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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