The Tree of Life murders and trial, part I: portents

By Bill Simons 

This summer, history unfolded on 700 Grant St., Pittsburgh, in United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania. On the fifth floor, courtroom 5B, Judge Robert J. Colville presided over USA vs. Robert Bowers. With jury selection and determination of guilt completed, closing arguments for phase three of the trial took place on Wednesday, July 12. The jury previously found the defendant guilty of the murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation building, located in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, during Shabbat services on Saturday, October 27, 2018. 

Robert Bowers’ victims included worshippers from the three congregations that met in separate parts of the building: Tree of Life and New Light, both Conservative, and Dor Hadash, affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism. Bowers also wounded two others while they prayed, as well as four police first-responders. In addition to the murder charges, the 63 indictments against him cited civil rights violations and hate crimes. Bowers exercised his constitutional right not to take the witness stand, and his attorneys mounted no defense against the charges. Phase three was to determine Bowers’ eligibility for the death penalty. If the jury had found Bowers ineligible for the death penalty, the trial would have ended with his sentencing to life imprisonment without parole. But determination of his eligibility for the death penalty meant that phase four would decide if he was to be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. An assistant U.S. attorney and a defense attorney both delivered strong closing arguments on July 12. 

Wearing a lanyard, issued by the office of the court clerk, that displayed media credentials with photo ID and the notation William Simons, Columnist, The Reporter, I sat three rows directly behind Bowers, a distance of no more than a few feet. Mainly, I saw only his head and back as Bowers sat motionless, looking down at the computer screen in front of him. It displayed documents presented in the proceedings. During a recess, Bowers stood and turned around, looking briefly in my direction. He appeared cocky and confident in contrast to the emotions etched in the faces of others in the courtroom, several of whom were survivors of the carnage or relatives and friends of the Tree of Life dead. Encountering Bowers, I felt a chill when I looked at his expression. This past winter, I attended a murder trial without experiencing the unsettling emotion that I felt from Bowers’ gaze. 

The ethnic and racial history of Pittsburgh is distinctive yet reflective of America’s multigroup past. As in other American cities, immigrant Jews came to Pittsburgh and worked hard, and their descendants ascended educationally and economically. Movement to the suburbs proceeded in later generations, but Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section remained the center of Jewish life for many Chasidic, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructing Judaism and secular adherents. Highlights of the city’s Jewish journey encompassed the Reform movement’s adoption of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, Pirates Hall of Fame owner Barney Dreyfus bringing six National League pennants to Pittsburgh, the retail innovations of downtown department stores Kaufmanns and Gimbels, University of Pittsburgh All-American running back Marshall Goldberg’s 1930s football exploits, slugger Hank Greenberg’s 1947 Pittsburgh Pirates baseball farewell, Dr. Jonas Salk’s University of Pittsburgh development of the polio vaccine, notable contributions to religious and community philanthropies, medical examiner Cyril Wecht’s forensic revelations, novelist Michael Chabon’s critically acclaimed books, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon’s academic leadership, Mayor Sophie Masloff’s commitment to reform and Post-Gazette Editor David Shribman’s journalistic courage. Nonetheless, portents presaged the Tree of Life tragedy. 

Summer 1977: It was hot, humid and uncomfortable in my Squirrel Hill second-floor lodgings at 5620 Woodmont Street. I went outside onto the porch to sleep. Awakened by a repetitive metallic sound, I saw two young males across the street and a few houses to the left firing rifles at close range into the front of Mrs. Stein’s house. I called the police; then, grabbing a hammer, I stood in the shadows on the sidewalk slightly in front of a car parked by my apartment. The two shooters then headed to that car and got into the front seats. I was apparently unseen. They started to drive off. I stepped forward, raised the hammer at the car window and my arm came down. The impact of the projectile against the window sounded like an explosion and shards of glass flew from the windshield. The car raced off. The stock of the hammer still in my hand, my arm motion apparently gave flight to the head. Two police officers soon arrived, and I walked with them to Mrs. Stein’s house where BB-gun pellets littered the front porch. 

Far more serious and more explicitly antisemitic incidents punctuated Pittsburgh’s history prior to the mass murders at the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue. Neal Rosenblum, a devout Orthodox Jew dressed in haredi style, was gunned down in Squirrel Hill on April 17, 1986. On April 28, 2000, in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Richard Baumhammers shot his neighbor Anita Gordon, to death and then spray-painted swastikas on her synagogue. However, nothing remotely on the scale of the Tree of Life shooting had ever happened in Greater Pittsburgh before. Like December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, October 27, 2018, marked indelible tragedy, the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. 

All of Bowers’ murder victims were vulnerable by age and/or disability. Listed by age, they were Rose Mallinger, 97; Melvin Wax, 87; Sylvan Simon, 86; Bernice Simon, 84; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Daniel Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Richard Gottfried, 65; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; and David Rosenthal, 54.

In the late afternoon of Wednesday, July 12, and early morning of Thursday, July 13, the jury deliberated over whether the death penalty option should be considered. The jury reported affirmatively. On Monday, July 17, the concluding phase of the trial commenced, ultimately to decide between a jury recommendation of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.