Nearly every morning for three months, family members and survivors quietly gathered in a federal courtroom in Pittsburgh. They listened to witnesses recount the terror of the morning nearly five years ago when a gunman murdered 11 worshipers in their synagogue, and to witnesses who tried to explain what drove the man to commit such horror.
And on Wednesday, they listened as a judge announced the jury’s unanimous decision that the gunman, Robert Bowers, should be condemned to die.
The verdict, after nearly 10 hours of deliberations by the jurors, was met with a mix of solemnity, gratitude and relief among the survivors and relatives of those killed.
“Finally, justice has been served,” said Leigh Stein, whose father, Dan Stein, was killed in the attack. “Even though nothing will bring my dad back, I feel like a weight has been lifted.”
The massacre, on Oct. 27, 2018, is considered the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, and the death sentence is the first handed down in federal court during the Biden administration.
“Hate crimes like this one inflict irreparable pain on individual victims and their loved ones, and lead entire communities to question their very belonging,” Merrick B. Garland, the U.S. attorney general said in a statement. “All Americans deserve to live free from the fear of hate-fueled violence, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who perpetrate such acts.”
At a hearing scheduled for Thursday morning, Robert Colville, a U.S. district judge, will formally impose the death sentence that the jury recommended.
The members of the three congregations that had been meeting for services in the Tree of Life synagogue on that gray and drizzly Sabbath morning in Pittsburgh have never come to a consensus about whether a death sentence would be a just outcome. But many had grown to appreciate the trial itself.
Some said that as raw and painful as the trial was at moments, it was the first time that they had truly learned what happened that day. To others, it signified a break with a long and tragic history of governments looking away when Jewish people were targets of violence.
The “lengthy but fair judicial process,” said Howard Fienberg, whose mother, Joyce Fienberg, was killed in the attack, was “a marker and a reminder that we belong here. That this is where we are, this is where we’ve been, and this country is where we belong. We remain a part of it and we always will.”
Weeks before deciding that Mr. Bowers should be sentenced to death, the same jury found him guilty on all 63 of the federal counts that he had been facing, including an array of hate crimes. The defense called no witnesses in that part of the trial, as there was never any dispute that Mr. Bowers had carried out the attack.
After declaring online that he needed to act to protect the white race, Mr. Bowers, armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, stormed the synagogue shortly after the congregations — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — had begun gathering in separate parts of the building for morning worship.
He stalked the hallways and chapels, murdering members of all three congregations. He shot and killed Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, developmentally disabled brothers who always greeted worshipers at the door. In the passage leading to the chapel where Tree of Life had begun services, and then inside among the pews, he killed Ms. Fienberg, 75; Irving Younger, 69; and Sylvan Simon, 86, later returning to kill Mr. Simon’s wife, Bernice, 84.
He killed Rose Mallinger, 97, as she huddled under a pew with her daughter, whom he also shot and wounded. He killed Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Dor Hadash, who had heard gunshots and run down the hallway to offer help. In a downstairs kitchen, he killed Richard Gottfried, 65, and Mr. Stein, 71, two members of New Light, and he shot Melvin Wax, 87, who had stepped out of a closet where he and others were hiding.
The police rushed to the synagogue and, after exchanging gunfire with Mr. Bowers, eventually cornered him in a classroom. A little over an hour after the attack began, he crawled out, wounded by gunfire and still espousing hatred of Jewish people. Six people, including four police officers, were wounded in the attack.
Mr. Bowers’s defense team, which included Judy Clarke, a lawyer with a long record of defending people accused of capital crimes, had repeatedly offered to have Mr. Bowers plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of release, but the government rejected these offers.
In the penalty phase of the trial, Mr. Bowers’s lawyers argued that he had suffered throughout his life from severe mental illness and that he bore the emotional scars of a chaotic and unstable childhood. He had been committed to psychiatric hospitals multiple times during his life and tried to kill himself more than once.
Several experts called by the defense diagnosed him with schizophrenia, and one psychiatrist, who had interviewed him for nearly 40 hours, said he had become obsessed with delusions about his duty to fight the forces of Satan before the approaching apocalypse.
“I wish we could have a conversation about the challenges he faced in life, how he tried and tried to make it in life,” Ms. Clarke told the jury in her closing argument. “I wish we could have a conversation about how he tried and failed, and tried again and failed again, and tried again. And I wish we could have that conversation about how he finally succumbed to his damaged brain and his mental illness.”
But experts called by the government disputed many of these diagnoses, and argued that the virulently bigoted views that Mr. Bowers expressed about Jewish people and immigrants were not just products of his own delusional thinking but rather views shared by thousands of others on extremist websites. Prosecutors detailed the months of planning that he put into the attack, the studying of different potential targets and the hundreds of antisemitic posts that Mr. Bowers had made or shared on social media.
“The defendant doesn’t have schizophrenia,” Eric Olshan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said in his closing argument. “You know what’s inside of his mind,” he told the jury. “It’s filled with hate and common, extreme, white supremacist, antisemitic tropes.”
The jury, apparently, agreed. At the conclusion of an earlier phase, in mid-July, jurors took only two hours to decide that Mr. Bowers’s mental health problems were not severe enough to render him ineligible for the death penalty.
And in a long list of potentially mitigating factors that jurors were tasked with deciding alongside the ultimate verdict on Wednesday, they rejected the defense’s characterizations of Mr. Bowers’s delusions and unanimously concluded that he did not have schizophrenia.
Mr. Bowers will very likely spend years, if not decades, on death row as his case makes its way through the appeals process — something that some of those who had opposed the pursuit of the death penalty have spoken of with dread. The announcement of the verdict did, at least temporarily, bring to a close one question that had loomed over the congregations for years. But many others remained unanswered.
“There’s no going back to the way things were — that’s not going to happen,” said Rabbi Doris Dyen, who had been in the parking lot that October morning to attend services with Dor Hadash, but stopped when she saw the shattered glass of the windows. She has since had difficulty finding a worship routine that feels right to her, she said. She said she looks forward to that changing, someday.
Jon Moss contributed reporting.