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Jury moves closer to recommending death penalty for the Tree of Life synagogue killer

The panel unanimously found Robert Gregory Bowers is eligible for capital punishment for his Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting in Pittsburgh.
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PITTSBURGH — A Pennsylvania man who killed 11 people in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history meets the requirements for the death penalty, a federal jury found Thursday.

The panel in Pittsburgh reached that conclusion after two hours of deliberations, weighing the fate of Robert Gregory Bowers, 50, who was convicted last month on all 63 federal charges in the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.

The panel is scheduled to return to court Monday to continue the penalty phase with testimony about potential aggravating and mitigating factors that could end in jurors' recommending the ultimate penalty for Bowers.

The government is seeking the death penalty, and U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville would have to impose it if the panel ultimately recommends death.

The jury filled out an 11-page verdict form and found that Bowers met baseline criteria for capital punishment.

It found beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowers met aggravating factors, such as creating "a grave risk of death" to multiple people, carrying out the crime with "substantial planning and premeditation," targeting old, "vulnerable" victims and killing and attempting to kill "more than one person in a single criminal episode."

“We are grateful for the jury’s effort to reach a just decision today,” Jeffrey Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters outside the courthouse.

“The federation does not have a position on the death penalty. But this was an act of antisemitism, and the defendant deserves to answer for his crime,” he said.

The shooting 4½ years ago in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh shocked the nation.

The massacre killed Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; and Melvin Wax, 87.

“I also hope that the next phase of the trial, which will allow the families of the victims an opportunity to speak, will give them a sense of relief and fulfillment," Finkelstein said.

The community and even loved ones of victims are not unified in opinion about whether Bowers should be put to death, Finkelstein said.

“There is some divide, not only between congregations but also among the victims' families," he said. "There's always different opinions."

The defense argued that Bowers is psychotic and that he has brain abnormalities, leading to his deadly actions.

But the government maintained that Bowers, a truck driver from nearby Baldwin, was a bigot who understood what he was doing.

He was active on social media, ranting about immigrants, pushing conspiracy theories and threatening Jews.

“This was an act of antisemitism, not an issue of mental illness," Finkelstein said. "This was hatred toward Jews. I want to thank the jury for all of their incredible work."

A representative for the U.S. attorney's office in Pittsburgh declined to comment Thursday afternoon. Bowers' defense lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.

Carolina Gonzalez reported from Pittsburgh and David K. Li from New York City.