Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial jury deliberates on death penalty eligibility
10/27 TrialPenalty eligibility phase nears its end

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial jury deliberates on death penalty eligibility

Prosecution and defense deliver closing arguments

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)

The jury for the synagogue massacre trial began deliberations on Wednesday after the defense and prosecution gave closing arguments at the conclusion of the trial’s second phase — the penalty eligibility phase.

If the jury unanimously agrees that the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, the trial will move to a sentencing phase. If the jury does not unanimously agree that the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, he will be sentenced to life in prison and the trial will end.

During the second phase of the trial, the prosecution sought to prove that the defendant was older than 18 at the time of the murders; that he had the requisite intent to kill his victims; and that there was at least one “aggravating factor” associated with his crime. One possible aggravating factor is that the victims were “vulnerable,” meaning either elderly or infirm.

There is no question that the defendant was over the age of 18 at the time of the murders, or that at least one aggravating factor was present. The defense thus focused on the issue of intent during the trial’s second phase.

The defense witnesses testified that the defendant had epilepsy, schizophrenia and delusional thinking, which prevented him from forming the conscious intent to kill.

In the prosecution’s half-hour closing argument, prosecutor Soo Song told the jury that the defendant proved his intent to kill “each and every time he pulled the trigger on his rifle.”

“You had all the evidence you needed after the guilt phase,” Song said. “You have more than enough evidence to find the defendant eligible for the death penalty even before you heard one witness.”

During the second phase of the trial, the jury heard from defense witness and forensic psychologist Richard Rogers, who testified that the shooter — whom Rogers diagnosed with schizophrenia — made meticulous plans prior to the shooting.

He considered several other targets before settling on the Tree of Life building, including the South Hills and Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Centers and an unnamed prominent Jewish figure in Ohio. The morning of the shooting, he visited the Squirrel Hill JCC and ruled it out because of its proximity to a police station. He decided to attack the Tree of Life building because, Song said, it was a “high-value, high-impact” target.

The shooter had three goals for the attack, Song said: to kill Jewish people, whom he believed were committing genocide; to scare other Jewish people and dissuade them from committing genocide; and to encourage others to follow in his footsteps and kill Jewish people.

Before he entered the synagogue and began shooting, the defendant posted on Gab.com, a social media site known for extremist views and hate speech that he frequently used to espouse conspiracy theories and antisemitic rhetoric. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he wrote.

Over the course of 90 minutes, defense attorney Michael Burt gave the defense’s closing argument, saying that the defendant’s brain scans and expert witness testimony point to his inability to form intent. Burt also questioned the qualifications of the prosecution’s expert witnesses and suggested financial motives behind their findings.

An MRI scan showed an abundance of white matter lesions in the defendant’s brain, a potential sign of schizophrenia or epilepsy, according to defense witness and neurologist Andrew Newberg. Neurologist and prosecution witness Ryan Darby testified that these lesions could be due to smoking or obesity.

Regardless of cause, Burt said, the existence of multiple lesions shows a defect in the defendant’s brain.

“When they get to this number, something’s wrong,” Burt said. “They’re concrete evidence of brain trauma.”

Defense witness and clinical psychiatrist Siddhartha Nadkarni diagnosed the defendant with schizophrenia and epilepsy. Prosecution witness Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, testified that the defendant did not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia or delusional thinking, and that his beliefs instead were the result of white supremacist and antisemitic ideology.

Burt argued that the defendant’s delusional thinking led him to the shooting. Burt noted the judge’s jury instructions, to avoid information from the internet and social media because it could be false, and suggested that the defendant did not have that ability when consuming content online, such as on Gab.

“What if your brain is not able to process that all of that is fake and false, and that we cannot act on the basis of that sort of delusional belief?” Burt said.

In the prosecution’s rebuttal, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan argued that the defendant had the ability to form the intent to kill. His intent was evident then and is evident now, Olshan said.

“Everything he did, all of the murders, all of the carnage on Oct. 27, 2018, he intended to do,” Olshan said. “He said it on the day, he said it in his Gab posts, he said it four years later when he was examined by Dr. Rogers.”

Last month, the jury found the defendant guilty of all 63 counts filed against him in the killing of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Irving Younger and Melvin Wax.

In a letter to the editor to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle last year, seven of the nine families whose loved ones were killed in the shooting expressed support for the defendant receiving the death penalty.

The jury is expected to resume deliberations on Thursday, July 13. PJC

Abigail Hakas can be reached at ahakas@pittsburghjewishchronicle.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.

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