More defense witnesses testify to synagogue shooter’s chaotic childhood
10/27 TrialPenalty phase of trial

More defense witnesses testify to synagogue shooter’s chaotic childhood

Defendant's psychiatric care discussed

A view of the Joseph F. Weis, Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Downtown, photographed Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)
A view of the Joseph F. Weis, Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Downtown, photographed Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

A retired psychiatrist said Monday that he treated the Pittsburgh synagogue killer at age 13 for depression after he threatened to kill his mother in 1985, and a second psychiatrist recounted treating the troubled boy at a juvenile facility where he was subsequently committed.

Neither doctor remembered the young Robert Bowers among the thousands of patients they’ve seen in the 38 years since.

But both testified for the defense based on records from that time indicating the boy suffered from depression because of conflict with his mother, Barbara Bolt. One said he slowly improved over several months on antidepressants.

Earl Brink, formerly chief of psychiatry at McKeesport Hospital, said his old notes indicate that the defendant ended up at the hospital because he had threatened to light his mother on fire with lighter fluid.

Brink injected him with increasingly high doses of the tranquilizer Thorazine, prescribed an antidepressant and later recommended that he be evaluated for the possible emergence of schizophrenia at age 16 or 17. Doctors also did a CT scan.

“Something was going on,” Brink told the jury in response to questions from Judy Clarke, one of the defense lawyers.

Child psychiatrist Alan Axelson, who previously ran Southwood Psychiatric Hospital, reviewed old records indicating that Bowers had been sent there against his will and initially lay curled up in bed and refusing to interact with others. But with antidepressant treatment over several weeks, he said, the boy gradually began participating in group activities and completed his schoolwork.

“Southwood saw some progress,” Axelson said.

The two doctors were testifying for the defendant’s lawyers in an effort to spare him the death penalty on mental health grounds. The defense team has maintained that he is schizophrenic and has brain abnormalities.

The Justice Department disputes a mental health defense, saying he carefully planned the attack over months, driven by his hatred of Jewish people.

Bowers, 50, has been convicted of slaughtering 11 worshippers from three congregations at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, and the jury has since determined that he is eligible for the death penalty.

Both sides are now presenting evidence supporting their positions as to why he should be executed or spend his life in prison.

Earlier in the day Monday, the defendant’s lawyers reached deep into his family’s past to try to show that he is the product of a dysfunctional lineage with a history of abuse, mental illness, alcoholism and neglect dating to the 1930s.

A second cousin, Naomi Grimm, said she never even knew Bowers existed until after the synagogue massacre. A home health aide from Ohio, Grimm said she’d researched her family tree and on the stand described a tale of woe starting with the Great Depression in southern Ohio.

Because of economic hardship in 1931, the defendant’s great-grandparents put their nine children, including the defendant’s grandmother, into McCullough Home in Steubenville, where Grimm said they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the administrator.

She suggested that the harsh environment of the children’s home caused emotional trauma that has rippled through the generations. Several of those children later developed mental health problems or became alcoholics, and some became sex abusers.

“They all seemed to be very similar in the way they raised us because of their treatment in the children’s home,” Grimm said. “We all have a certain amount of mental illness because of how they were raised.”

She said she even wrote a letter to the author of a book that discussed McCullough Home, “Lost Children of the Ohio Valley,” saying the place had damaged her family.

The defense team elicited her testimony to bolster its contention that the defendant suffers from the same sad history of mental health problems stemming from those years.

The defense only needs to convince one juror that he was mentally ill when he opened fire at the Tree of Life building to spare him from the federal death chamber in Indiana.

Psychologist Katherine Porterfield, another defense witness, also testified Monday about his chaotic home life, describing how his mother behaved in sexually inappropriate ways in his presence when he was a small boy. She said Bolt had relationships with many men, taught her son how to masturbate and once took him and a friend, both 6 years old, to see the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” which featured sex, rape and suicide scenes.

Porterfield testified that Bolt felt she was a “terrible mom” and said “I should do half the sentence” for her son’s crime.

The prosecution immediately objected to that comment. After a sidebar, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville ordered the jury to disregard it.

The trial will continue Tuesday. PJC

Related story: Resources are available to ease trauma during synagogue shooting trial.

Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He can be reached at 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.

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