Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers came into the federal courtroom Monday using a wheelchair and accompanied by U.S. marshals.
Many of the roughly 100 people — mostly media — who had been waiting quietly for Bowers to enter suddenly craned their necks, some half-standing or half-crouched trying to get a glimpse of the man suspected of killing 11 people and wounding six in a rampage Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue. It was unclear whether family or friends of victims were present.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Robert Mitchell was quick and efficient — asking Bowers during his first court appearance since the shooting if he agreed to be represented by counsel. He did. And he was asked if he understood the charges read to him.
“Yes sir,” said the 46-year-old, who is represented by public defenders.
Mitchell scheduled another hearing for Bowers on Thursday. The suspect, who was being held in custody without bond, was wounded in a shootout with police Saturday before being captured, but had been released from Allegheny General Hospital earlier Monday.
The court hearing lasted about 10 minutes.
U.S. Atty. Scott Brady told reporters afterward that the charges were brought after “the horrific acts of violence” that devastated the Tree of Life Synagogue. He said the investigation of it as a hate crime continues.
Brady said prosecutors will lay out evidence in court Thursday that they believe will show “that Robert Bowers murdered 11 people who were exercising their religious beliefs and shot or injured six others — including four of whom were police officers.”
Prosecutors have 30 days to present a case to a grand jury, Brady said.
“Rest assured, we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done,” Brady said.
Bowers faces 29 counts, including murder with a firearm, and several hate crime charges such as obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. Federal prosecutors have said they are seeking the death penalty.
Bowers is also facing state charges, including 11 counts of homicide.
The shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday left the predominantly Jewish community of Squirrel Hill shaken, and a vigil held Sunday night drew thousands and featured emotional comments — along with messages for peace.
There were signs around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood with support, including at the iconic Manor Theatre, which has stood for decades.
“PGH is stronger than hate,” the theater’s marquee read, using an abbreviation for Pittsburgh. Several electronic billboards throughout the city read “Unite in Prayer in Pittsburgh.”
At a memorial site at the edge of where a police car blocked off the street to Tree of Life, about 150 bouquets of flowers rested on a grassy slope. Written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the flowers were messages of support, including one that read “Love to this beautiful neighborhood.”
Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday announced a tribute at the Pennsylvania state Capitol, asking that the building’s lights on Third Street in Harrisburg be darkened — save for one blue light.
“All of Pennsylvania stands in solidarity with the victims, their families, all those mourning in Pittsburgh and Jewish Americans across the commonwealth,” Wolf said in a statement. “This horrifying atrocity was the product of a dark and warped bigotry. We must shine a light on this hatred and anti-Semitism and expel it from our society.”
Funerals for the 11 people killed are scheduled to begin Tuesday. There were six wounded in the shooting, including four police officers who responded to the scene.
President Trump and the first lady are expected to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it would be a chance for them “to express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community.”
The planned visit was received with mixed feelings.
In an open letter to Trump, the Pittsburgh affiliate of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, said he wouldn’t be welcomed in the city until he denounced white nationalism.
“For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence,” the letter read in part.
“Our Jewish community is not the only group you have targeted. You have also deliberately undermined the safety of people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Yesterday’s massacre is not the first act of terror you incited against a minority group in our country.”
Elliot Dinkin, 58, who has lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood most of his life, said the office of the president should be welcomed regardless of one’s political leanings.
But Dinkin was also thinking about his 95-year-old father, who was once a leader at Tree of Life and knew many of the victims. Dinkin said he is haunted by the experience of telling his dad the names of those who were killed.
“I remember I waited to come over and he said, ‘What is taking you so long?’” Dinkin said. “I made sure the names were written down right and took a screen shot and took a deep breath and sat down with him. I was reading the list and seeing his reaction was gut-wrenching — ‘Not him. Not her.’”
Dinkin said he couldn’t understand why a person would kill them — noting the brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were “the nicest, kindest, gentlest people” and that the oldest victim was 97-year-old Rose Mallinger.
Bowers had a history of posting anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant statements on social media, and his posts specifically mention a Jewish-founded nonprofit which helps resettle refugees from around the world.
According to charging documents by federal authorities, Bowers is said to have, during the attack and in a gunfight with law enforcement, stated his wish to kill Jewish people.
“They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews,” he said, according to the Justice Department’s charging document.