June 16 marked a milestone in the history of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, the broader Pittsburgh community and the national Jewish community. More than four years after the massacre at the Tree of Life building, the man who murdered 11 innocent Jewish worshippers in their sacred spaces has been found guilty by a jury of his peers. No longer the “alleged” or “accused” shooter, he is now the convicted shooter. He stands convicted not only of the shooting per se, but also of federal hate crimes and obstruction of religion.
This day has been a long time coming — far too long. In the meantime, some of those who were directly affected have passed away. The delay was due to a variety of reasons, including the pandemic and the zealousness of the defense, but at least in the end the trial resulted in justice. Whatever our feelings toward the shooter — most likely entirely justified — we should be glad that our government followed the rule of law.
We think it is important that the trial took place rather than the two sides agreeing to a plea bargain. It is the trial, with all the testimony of the witnesses and experts, and all the evidence, that creates the media coverage and historical record to expose the antisemitic motivations and actions of this man to the world. Had there been no trial, far less would be public about what happened and why.
There will now be one or two more phases of the trial to determine whether the shooter is eligible to receive the death penalty and, if so, whether he should indeed be sentenced to death. However, whatever happens next in the trial, it is the verdict in this first phase that is by far the most significant. As both a historical judgment and as a basis for combatting antisemitism going forward, it was vital that he be found guilty of all 63 counts. Whatever penalty the jury delivers is important, but it is of less consequence than the foundational finding that the shooter is guilty of all the crimes he committed.
Reasonable people can differ in their opinions on the death penalty — both in general as a matter of law, and in particular as applied to this case. As Rabbi Danny Schiff discussed in an opinion piece in the Chronicle a few weeks ago, Jewish law does in fact permit the use of the death penalty. However, as is usually the case when trying to apply halacha to a specific case, different people can come to different conclusions as to what the ruling should be. Moreover, this case is governed not by halacha but by United States federal law.
The Chronicle respects the legal process which will use precise, technical definitions under the law and all the evidence that both the prosecution and defense can muster during these next phases of the trial. Whatever the outcome, the punishment, as required by law, will be severe.
We continue to remember our cherished community members who were killed just for being Jews: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. May their memories forever be for a blessing. PJC