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Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter sentenced to death after victims face him in court

Armed with an AR-15 and other weapons, the gunman barged into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and opened fire, killing 11 and wounding seven others.
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PITTSBURGH — The man who killed 11 congregants and wounded seven others at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 was sentenced to death Thursday for the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville handed down the sentence to Robert Gregory Bowers, 50, a truck driver whose vicious antisemitism led him to shoot his way into a place of worship and target people for practicing their faith at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“I have nothing specific that I care to say to Mr. Bowers,” Colville said, before issuing the formal sentence. “I am however convinced there is nothing I could say to him that might be meaningful.”

Despite the judge's sentence, it could be years before the shooter’s execution takes place, in light of the Department of Justice’s moratorium on capital punishment.

Federal jurors had decided Wednesday that the shooter would be sentenced to death, and the judge bound to impose their punishment. The panel had to be unanimous or else the shooter would have received life in prison without parole.

In June, the same jury found the gunman guilty on 63 criminal counts stemming from the attack and deemed him eligible for the death penalty after deliberating for five hours over two days. He had pleaded not guilty to those counts.

Armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, the shooter gunned down the victims during Saturday morning Sabbath services at synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, considered a historic Jewish enclave.

Worshipers told MSNBC that a circumcision celebration, known as a bris, was taking place when the first shots rang out. The gunman surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition.

For months before the attack, the shooter repeatedly posted antisemitic messages and hate speech on social media.

Prosecutors pointed to that documented history of antisemitism throughout the trial, arguing it showed his intent to carry out the massacre, while the defense unsuccessfully tried to argue that mental illness and delusional beliefs were the root cause of the attack.

The three-week trial also included emotional testimonies from survivors, victims’ family members and police officers, and many spoke out again at the sentencing Thursday.

Some spoke of the trauma they endured and the lasting impact on it had on their lives.

Stephen Weiss, who attended the morning service and survived the shooting, said he now attends synagogue with a gun.

“… I felt that if I was armed that day, things would have turned out differently. The one place that I always felt was a safe place for Jews to worship no longer was," he said.

Rabbi Jeff Myers, who has served as the head of the congregation since 2017, said other mass shooting often impact him "severely."  

“I could not drive by the building for more than a year, he added.

Anthony Fienberg, the son of Joyce Fienberg, 75, who died that day, said: “When I enter a building, I always look for a place to hide.”

Others, like members of the Rosenthal family, spoke of the holes the loss of their loves left. Two brothers, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were killed in the attack.

Michael Hirt, one of the family members, said the conversation he gets to have with them “only occurs at the cemetery.

The family said every Oct. 27 — the date of the massacre — they will make a donation in Robert Bowers' name to an immigration services organization.

Loved ones of the victims and members of the local community, however, were torn over whether the shooter should be put to death, Jeffrey Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters last month.

“There’s always different opinions," Finkelstein said at the time.

Following the sentencing Wednesday, Carol Black, whose brother, 65-year-old Richard Gottfried, was killed in the attack, said that she believed the punishment decided by jurors fit the crime.

“When a horrendous crime is committed, it deserves the most severe penalty,” Black said.

The other victims killed in the attack were Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; and Melvin Wax, 87.

Death sentences are rare in the federal system. The last execution was carried out on Jan. 16, 2021, when triple murderer Dustin John Higgs died by lethal injection at U.S. Penitentiary, Terre Haute, a maximum security federal prison in Indiana. Just 50 executions have been carried out since 1927.

Minyvonne Burke reported from Pittsburgh and Julianne McShane from New York City.