The jury in the trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter began deliberating Wednesday on whether he is eligible for the death penalty.
If the jury finds that he is eligible, it will proceed to a final phase of the trial, called sentence selection, to consider whether to recommend the death penalty for capital crimes in light of all aggravating and mitigating factors.
This final phase is expected to last several weeks.
The jury may also decide that Bowers is ineligible for the death penalty at this stage, ending deliberations and leading to a life sentence for capital.
Robert Bowers, 50, had found guilty June 16 of all 63 charges against him for killing 11 worshipers and injuring six others at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, the deadliest attack on the Jewish people in the US. Twenty-two of those charges were capital offenses.
The jury deliberated for about an hour. Deliberations resume Thursday morning.
The death penalty trial is divided into two parts, the guilt phase followed by the punishment phase. In this case, however, the judge granted the defense’s request to divide the trial into three parts: the guilt phase, the eligibility phase and the sentence selection phase. Each side has opening statements, closing arguments and a verdict.
In this eligibility phase, prosecutors had to prove that Bowers had an intentional mental state when he committed the crimes and at least one aggravating factor applied to the mass shooting. They argued that the shooting showed extensive planning and a clear intent that, in Bowers’ own words, “all the Jews had to die.”
Instead, the defense sought to question whether Bowers acted with intent and highlighted his mental health issues. Several doctors testified that they diagnosed him with schizophrenia and noted his delusional thoughts and conspiracies about Jews.
During closing arguments Wednesday, the defense team said the shooter’s delusions “took over her thoughts.”
“In 2018, that delusional belief system took over his thinking and made him unable to really do anything but follow the dictates of that belief system,” defense attorney Michael Burt told the jury.
The defense team focused on the threshold intent factors in the case, trying to prove that Bowers was incapable of forming an intent to kill or cause serious injury due to mental illness, which Burt emphasized in his argument of 90 minutes.
“People don’t walk into a church and kill a bunch of elderly people for no reason,” Burt said. “We have tried to give you reasons that we believe explain how this horrible crime could have happened.”
Two medical experts called by the defense testified that the shooter diagnosed Bowers with schizophrenia and one diagnosed him with epilepsy. Other experts testified that Bowers showed signs of these conditions as well as delusions.
Burt said there is a difference between “a rational, conscious intent to kill, as opposed to an insane, delusional intent found in mental illness.”
In his recusal, defense attorney Eric Olshan disputed the defense experts’ diagnoses, saying Bowers does not have schizophrenia, epilepsy or delusions.
“He just believes things that are repugnant,” Olshan said.
“Even if the defendant had these diseases, they wouldn’t say anything if they could form an intent to kill,” the prosecutor told the jury.
“Don’t be distracted from the simple, common-sense fact that everything the defendant did in the months leading up to October 27th and on that horrific day was because that’s exactly what he intended to do,” Olshan said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Colville instructed jurors before closing arguments, asking them to disregard the fact that Bowers did not testify in the trial. “You must not draw any adverse inference against him for not taking the witness stand,” he said.
The jury heard a total of 20 witnesses during more than two weeks of testimony in the final phase of the trial.
In 2018, Bowers approached the synagogue with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle and began shooting near the synagogue’s entrance and then opened fire on congregants, according to testimony.
Police eventually shot Bowers several times before he surrendered and was arrested.
Among those who died were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple married in the synagogue more than 60 years ago.