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Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter sentenced to death by judge, following jury's recommendation

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter given death sentence
Rare federal death sentence handed down to Pittsburgh synagogue shooter 00:19

The gunman who killed 11 people and injured seven more in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 was formally sentenced to death by a judge Thursday, a day after a jury decided he should get the death sentence

CBS Pittsburgh reports the jury, which was weighing either a death sentence or life in prison, reached its unanimous decision Wednesday morning after almost 10 hours of deliberation over two days.

The gunman, Robert Bowers, was found guilty in June of all 63 federal charges brought against him in connection with the massacre, including criminal counts for hate crimes resulting in death. 

In the penalty phase, the 12-member jury had to reach a decision on whether what are known as aggravating factors outweighed 115 mitigating factors. The decisions on each of those factors on the 25-page verdict form were read before the jury announced its final decision.

"The task before the jury was an enormous task and they seem to have embraced it with an earnestness and seriousness," Judge Robert Colville said Wednesday after the jury returned, CBS Pittsburgh's Andy Sheehan reported.

Families and survivors had the chance to share statements Thursday before Colville officially imposed the sentence of death by execution.

"Our Constitution protects a person's right to hold repugnant beliefs. But our Constitution also protects every person's right to practice his or her faith," said U.S. Attorney Eric G. Olsham, in a news conference following the jury's decision Wednesday. "And when people who espouse white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views pick up weapons and use them to kill — or try to kill — people because of their faith, our office and our partners in law enforcement will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, each and every time."

The gunman opened fire inside of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services, in the deadliest antisemitic attack in the country's history. Some of the victims were worshippers from two other congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light, which shared space in the building along with Tree of Life, the largest of the three. Armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, police said he shouted "All Jews must die!" during the shooting, which is the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. The gunman was shot multiple times by responding officers and taken into custody.

Memorial For Victims Of Mass Shooting At Pittsburgh Synagogue
Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting on Oct. 27. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Family members, survivors and members of the Jewish community shared their reactions in a news conference following the verdict. Multiple people described the nearly five years since the attack as an ordeal, and expressed gratitude to the jury.

"Today we've received an immense embrace from the halls of justice, around all of us, to say that our government does not condone antisemitism in its most vile form that we have witnessed and that we are embraced by a system that has supported, nurtured us and upheld us — and made the point very clear: We have the right to practice our Judaism and no one will ever take that right away from us," said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, of the Tree of Life synagogue.

Audrey Glickman, who survived the attack, said the penalty was "a step in the right direction."

"The purpose of the death penalty is not so much punishing, as cutting off the person from society, eliminating the evil, taking away the risk— the potential for infection and the possibility of further harm to the citizens," she said.

Had he been sentenced to life in prison, she said, he would have had all his needs tended and the possibility of connecting with other prisoners and gaining greater privileges.

"Justice is something we have to tend continually. Can we not argue that justice goes so much further than merely the disposition of the criminal? We have a lot of work to do going forward," she said.

Survivor Martin Gaynor, who testified in the trial, pointed to rising antisemitism in the country and said that he and other survivors know the consequences of that hate.

"This trial is important in enforcing the law of the land. It is also important in sending a signal in the strongest possible terms that antisemitism and hate have no place in our hearts, no place in our communities, no place in our country, and will not be tolerated," he said.

Attorneys for the shooter, a truck driver with a documented history of antisemitic and violent extremist views that he posted about online, admitted during the criminal trial that he was responsible for the massacre, but focused on his mental state, raising questions as to whether Bowers was driven by hate or schizophrenia when he carried out the attack. 

Prosecutors rejected the defense's claims related to mental illness, arguing that the gunman methodically planned the shooting before entering the Tree of Life that morning. One federal prosecutor told the jury that the attacker turned a house of worship into a "hunting ground."

"It doesn't make you schizophrenic to be happy about what you did. This defendant just happens to be white supremacist like many other white supremacists. They're also not delusional, they're just white supremacists," a lawyer for the prosecution said during closing arguments, CBS Pittsburgh reported.

The jury found Bowers eligible to face the death penalty in July. While the prosecution had pushed during the trial for capital punishment, attorneys for the gunman asked for life in prison without the possibility of parole. Judy Clarke, a defense attorney, recounted in court the shooter's family history of mental illness and abuse, as well as alleged suicide attempts and hospitalizations that, she said, led him to develop schizophrenia, CBS Pittsburgh reported.

Judge Robert Colville, who presided over the case, denied a motion from the defense for a mistrial prior to the sentencing hearing on Tuesday morning.

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