The gunman who killed 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 pleaded guilty Friday to dozens of federal hate crimes and civil rights offenses, closing the first phase of a trial that may eventually end with a death sentence.
After five hours of deliberations over two days, the jury found the gunman, Robert Bowers, guilty on all 63 counts, including 26 firearm-related offenses and 11 charges of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs.
When the trial resumes on June 26, it will turn to the issue of punishment. The jury will hear arguments over whether Mr. Bowers, 50, could be sentenced to death for these crimes. If the jurors decide that he is him, then they will decide whether the death sentence should be imposed.
These next two stages of the trial will likely be dominated by testimony about Mr. Bowers’ mental health and upbringing, the lives of the people he killed, and the impact of their loss on their families and community. These phases should last about a month and a half, all told.
The courtroom was silent as US District Court Judge Robert J. Colville read the verdicts. Survivors of the attack and relatives of those killed shook hands. One woman, who had been hiding in a closet while Mr. Bowers hunted worshipers in the synagogue, nodded every time the judge read the verdict on a charge against her.
There was no doubt about the outcome of this first phase of the process. Mr. Bowers’ defense team questioned few of the prosecution witnesses and did not call a single witness. His attorneys have not disputed that he planned and carried out the massacre, which is considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history.
The primary objective for the defense, as expressed in the court documents filed before the trial, was to avoid a death sentence. Mr. Bowers’ attorneys made offers to have him plead guilty to all counts in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole, but the Justice Department rejected those offers.
In the first phase of the trial, defense attorneys raised questions about Mr. Bowers’ motives and intentions and whether the evidence presented by the government satisfied the elements of some of the federal charges. They also suggested that his state of mind could be a key part of their arguments in the penalty phase.
“How and why did this man, who had lived a law-abiding, solitary life until October 27, 2018, cause the havoc and destruction he has done?” Elisa Long, a federal public defender representing Mr. Bowers, said in the closing argument about her.
Friday’s verdict came after three weeks of testimony, including chilling accounts of worshipers who survived the mass shooting huddled in closets or lay near death in a hallway as Mr. Bowers stalked the Tree of Life synagogue with three pistols and a semi-automatic rifle. Three congregations were meeting for services in the building that morning: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. Members of each were among those killed or injured by Mr. Bowers.
« We were filled with terror, » said Andrea Wedner, who recounted lying on the floor of a chapel, her right arm shattered by bullets, as she tried to comfort her dying 97-year-old mother. « She IS indescribable, » she said.
The 60 witnesses called by the prosecution included police officers who rushed the synagogue, some of whom were injured in gunfights with Mr. Bowers; businessmen who sold Mr. Bowers his gun holsters; the CEO of Gab.com, the social media site where Mr. Bowers had prolifically posted his hatred of Jews and immigrants; and the president of a Jewish organization that helps resettle refugees — a mission Mr. Bowers said prompted him to attack the synagogue.
The testimony was often heartbreaking. Recordings of 911 calls were played, filling the courtroom with the sounds of people being shot to death. Prosecutors showed graphic photographs of the aftermath. Pathologists described the autopsies in clinical detail: a bullet wound so severe that « you could see into the space where the brain is »; a woman killed by a gunshot that « more or less cut her heart in two ».
Experts testified about Mr. Bowers’ barrage of anti-Semitic posts on Gab.com, celebrating the Holocaust and calling for the eradication of Jews.
“The message the defendant chose to tell the world about himself was clear and unambiguous: He is filled with hatred of Jews,” said Mary Hahn, federal prosecutor, in her closing argument.
Other witnesses were called to describe the principles of the Jewish faith and to explain how the three congregations had changed after the attack.
« We don’t have the same stake, » said Stephen Weiss, the longtime ritual director for Tree of Life. It was more difficult to reach the required minyan, or quorum, of 10 people to recite certain prayers. Those members who could always be counted on to show up in time for services, Mr. Weiss said, « They were killed. »
During much of this testimony, the defense team sat in silence, asking a few questions of some prosecution experts, but largely allowing the proceedings to proceed on government terms. Defense attorneys indicated in multiple places that their case would mostly come later in the trial.
There was no agreement among or within the three congregations as to whether Mr. Bowers should be sentenced to death. Many of their members are preparing for some painful weeks ahead.
« It’s hard to say the emotions we’re feeling right now, » Stephen Cohen, co-president of the New Light congregation, said Friday at the end of the meeting. « Relief, of course, » he told reporters, expressing gratitude to prosecutors. “But there’s also a certain degree of trepidation. Because this is only the first third of the process. And in a way, that was the least complicated part.