Witness testifies that synagogue shooter was ‘cooperative,’ ‘coherent’ in evaluation
10/27 TrialFinal eligibility phase witness

Witness testifies that synagogue shooter was ‘cooperative,’ ‘coherent’ in evaluation

The shooter appeared to believe that Donald Trump had given him a directive to take action, psychiatrist testified

A view of the Tree of Life synagogue, which housed three congregations, New Light, Dor Hadash and Tree of Life, photographed Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)
A view of the Tree of Life synagogue, which housed three congregations, New Light, Dor Hadash and Tree of Life, photographed Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

The psychiatrist who evaluated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter two days after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre said he was “cooperative” and “coherent.”

Peter Hauber, who spoke with the defendant from outside his jail cell for about an hour — and went on to recommend that he could be removed from suicide watch — testified Tuesday afternoon that he didn’t display any obvious suicidal ideations or delusions.

On the contrary, Hauber described the defendant’s affect as “appropriate”: He wasn’t laughing or hysterical about having killed 11 people on Oct. 27, adopting an “it is what it is” mentality. He acknowledged that he was in trouble and seemed to understand the consequences of the attack he felt he “had to do,” said Hauber.

Hauber also testified that the defendant mentioned that, now that he was imprisoned, he would no longer have to worry about where his next meal would come from. “It seemed kind of sad, actually, that that would be foremost on his mind,” he said.

The defendant’s life trajectory leading up to the shooting had not been positive, Hauber said, and his occupations — such as being a truck driver for a time — had not been fulfilling.

The defendant denied having hallucinations or delusions and maintained that his line of thinking was logical. During the interview, Hauber brought up then-President Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding “immigrants in caravans.” Although the defendant was not “frantic,” he spoke with a sense of urgency on this topic and appeared to believe that Trump had given him a directive to take action.

In his evaluation, Hauber concluded that the shooter seemed to have experienced more of a cultural indoctrination than a delusional belief system that would typically indicate a mental illness such as schizophrenia. Moreover, he didn’t believe that there was a need for medication.

While Hauber, who was called by the defense, ultimately gave a “placeholder” diagnosis of adjustment disorder, he now believes a more in-depth evaluation would have been necessary to identify the extent and type of the defendant’s psychological issues.

“I don’t think you should extrapolate too far from my evaluation,” he said.

Hauber was the final witness to testify in this phase of the trial. Tuesday morning’s testimony was dominated by the defense’s cross-examination of forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz.

Dietz, a key prosecution witness, testified Monday and Friday that he did not believe that the defendant met the criteria for major depressive disorder, delusions or schizophrenia.

Despite threatening to kill himself at the age of 10, the defendant as an adult did not exhibit symptoms of sufficient severity, duration and number to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, Dietz said.

Looking at the defendant’s life and history of occasional suicidal ideation, he added that it was unclear “which ones were threats, which ones were gestures, which ones deserved being called attempts.”

Dietz also maintained that cultural divides in the U.S. can make it difficult to assess delusions. “Radical” opinions on matters as wide-ranging as election fraud, religion and climate change can come from family, friends and one’s environment.

Unless a belief springs from a mental illness, rather than factors like those, it may be wrong, but it is not delusional, Dietz said.

Later in the morning, the defense made attempts to discredit Dietz’s credibility. Attorney Michael Burt questioned Dietz about a past high-profile case in 2005 where he had mistakenly provided incorrect testimony.

While his business initially took a hit following the incident, Dietz said he has since recovered and has a good reputation among prosecutors and defense alike. For this case, Dietz has been billing $800 an hour. The prosecution pointed to Burt himself having hired Dietz as a witness for a past case.

After Hauber’s testimony Tuesday afternoon, both sides rested their cases — moving closer to the end of the death penalty eligibility phase that will determine whether the shooter was capable of forming the requisite intent to kill.

In June, the defendant was found guilty of all 63 federal charges.

The defense is trying to prove that a mental illness such as schizophrenia or epilepsy means the shooter is not eligible for capital punishment.

After closing statements Wednesday morning, the jury will deliberate.

If the jurors unanimously agree that he was capable of the intent to kill, the trial will proceed to the third and final sentencing phase. If not, the trial will conclude and the judge will sentence the defendant to life in prison. PJC

Delaney Parks writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress where this first appeared. She can be reached at dparks@unionprogress.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.

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