Gunman’s hatred of Jews motivated synagogue massacre, prosecutor says before jury gets case

Bullet-damaged doors at a synagogue
Shown are the bullet-damaged doors of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. A gunman killed 11 worshippers in the October 2018 attack.
(U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania via AP)
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A truck driver who hated Jewish people turned a sacred house of worship into a “hunting ground” when he burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 congregants, a federal prosecutor said Thursday, before jury deliberations got underway in the man’s capital trial.

Robert Bowers is charged with 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death, after opening fire with an AR-15 rifle and other guns in the nation’s deadliest antisemitic attack. Some of the charges carry a potential death sentence.

In closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor told the jury that Bowers targeted his victims because of their religion.


“He is filled with hatred for Jews,” prosecutor Mary Hahn said, noting Bowers had an extensive history of posting antisemitic and white supremacist content online. “That is what propelled him to act.”

The suspect in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has gone on trial before a jury that could decide whether he will face the death penalty.

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Bowers’ attorney, Elisa Long, countered that Bowers was not trying to stop people from worshipping — an element of some of the crimes he is charged with — when he attacked the synagogue. Rather, she said in her closing argument Thursday, Bowers had the “nonsensical and irrational” belief that he had to attack Jews because of their support for efforts to help immigrants and refugees, people he viewed as invaders.

Her argument brought a sharp retort from prosecutors. Bowers targeted a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, “the center of the Jewish universe” in Pittsburgh, and attacked worshippers in yarmulkes and prayer shawls on the Jewish Sabbath, U.S. Atty. Eric Olshan reminded the jury.

“These aren’t people engaging in refugee assistance. These are people who are practicing their faith,” Olshan said. “And he kept hunting, looking for Jews to kill.”

The defense did not call any witnesses or present any evidence after conceding at the trial’s outset that he attacked and killed worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. Seven people were injured in the attack, including five police officers.

Three Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh are still waiting for justice four and a half years after the massacre that changed everything.

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Prosecutors presented evidence of the 50-year-old’s deep-seated animosity toward Jews and immigrants. Over 11 days of testimony, jurors learned that Bowers had extensively posted, shared or liked antisemitic and white supremacist content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right, and praised Hitler and the Holocaust.


Bowers fired about 100 rounds that day. He reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition, Hahn said. Bowers, who traded gunfire with responding officers and was shot three times, told police that “all these Jews need to die,” she said.

The prosecutor said one couple, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, “died in the pew they sat at week after week, year after year.” Many of the victims were elderly, “people who needed canes and hearing aids.” Reading the names of each of the 11 victims Bowers killed, Hahn asked the jury to “hold this defendant accountable ... and hold him accountable for those who cannot testify.”

Assuming the jury returns a conviction, the trial would enter what’s expected to be a lengthy penalty phase, with the same jurors deciding Bowers’ sentence: life in prison or the death penalty. Bowers’ attorneys have focused their efforts on trying to save his life.