The Tree of Life murders and trial, part III: Judgment

By Bill Simons

For the survivors and families of victims, constantly in attendance – as well as the jury, judge, attorneys and journalists – at Pittsburgh’s United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania, the U.S.A. v. Robert Bowers trial proved long, intense and draining. Ultimately convicted of murdering 11 Sabbath-observant Jews on October 27, 2018, and other offenses, Bowers remained enigmatic in demeanor throughout the Tree of Life proceedings, which was organized around four distinct phases: jury selection, determination of guilt, consideration of death penalty eligibility, and the decision as to whether to apply the death penalty. 

In this federal case, the U.S. attorney refused the defense’s attempt to plea bargain for life imprisonment with no chance of parole. More than 1,000 filings preceded the arduous jury selection process on Monday, April 24. Not until Wednesday, August 2, more than three months later, did the jury unanimously recommend imposition of the death penalty on Bowers. In passing sentence, Judge Robert Colville was bound by the jury decision. 

Both the prosecution and the defense attorneys were professional, impressive in preparation and presentation, and principled. Clearly, neither money, reputation, nor condonement of Bowers’ actions motivated the defense team, anchored by the very able Judy Clarke and Michael Burt. On moral and philosophical grounds, buttressed by a belief in a universal humanity, they oppose the death penalty. Eschewing publicity and subject to scathing condemnation for her choice of clients, Clarke – contained and empathetic in demeanor – has represented some of the most heinous mass murderers, amongst them Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Boston Marathon terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. 

Bowers’ attorneys mounted no defense against the facts of the case. Nor did they minimize the tragedy of October 27, 2018. Moreover, Bowers’ lawyers agreed that their client remained a menace to society. However, while they found life imprisonment without chance of parole appropriate punishment, they vigorously and skillfully argued against the death penalty. Clarke, Burt and associates asserted that their client suffered from multiple and severe mental illnesses to a degree sufficient to mitigate punishment from execution to life imprisonment. 
His alcoholic father pushed his mother down the stairs when she was eight months pregnant. According to the defense, Bowers endured an abusive, neglectful and psychologically traumatic childhood. Beatings, a car accident that resulted in cranial damage and family dysfunction contributed to emotional and cognitive instability. Bowers made several suicide attempts, including attempting to set himself on fire. His attorneys argued that delusions, psychoses, schizophrenia, social disorder and epilepsy disconnected Bowers from reality, evidenced by involuntary institutionalizations for mental illness. Mining the testimony of their expert psychiatric witnesses and medical records, including asymmetry in the brain lobes, MRI images of brain lesions and abnormal brain waves, defense counsel emphasized that “every behavior has an anatomy.” While affirming the horrors of the crime, the defense asserted that Bowers did not act with conscious intent. 

With analytic precision and empirical mastery, the prosecution effectively deconstructed the defense presentation. Troy Rivetti, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and his team raised serious questions about the qualifications and findings as well as the pecuniary motives of the psychiatrists employed by the defense. Despite their asymmetry, Bowers’ brain lobes displayed no abnormalities. Neither medical professionals nor Bowers himself ever reported evidence of an epileptic seizure, and his brain lesions are of a sort common to his age cohort. The prosecution asserted that the best prepared and reputable of the medical professionals to give testimony, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Part Dietz, found that “white separatist beliefs,” not delusions, drove Bowers’ rampage. 

Amongst ideological allies on Gab social media, Bowers shared his hatred of the Jews and plans to kill as many of them as possible. His months-long planning, including endless practice in the reloading of his Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, was meticulous. In particular, Bowers hated the liberal policies toward asylum seekers supported by many Jews, such as the congregants of Dor Hadash. Slaughtering Jews, he believed, would deter the replacement of whites by immigrants. 

Bowers agreed with the portrayal of himself provided by the prosecution. Although his attorneys battled diligently to save his life, he rejected their characterization of him as emotionally damaged, delusional and absent of intent. As depicted by the prosecution and as Bowers insisted, at length, to police and psychologists, he was a soldier, committed to the ideology of white nationalism and determined to kill as many Jews as possible. 

Of course, the ordeal is not over. The trauma has no closure. With years, if not decades, of appeals ahead, each stage will force survivors and supporters to relive the horrors of October 27, 2018. The 50-year-old Bowers may well die many years from now of natural causes. 
No consensus exists amongst Jews concerning the death penalty. According to Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Jewish law provides no “single, unequivocal, straightforward answer” on this issue. There are conflicting views about capital punishment between synagogues and within synagogues. Jewish scholars and rabbis differ. Most Tree of Life survivors and families of victims support the death penalty, but not all do. 

Despite their profound and enduring grief, the family of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz opposes the death penalty. Miri Rabinowitz states that capital punishment would conflict with her late husband’s devotion to “the sanctity of life.” Although the massacre claimed the lives of members of his congregation and damaged his own mental health, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman wrote, “Revenge will not bring our slain loved ones back to life. And seeking it may even hurt ourselves and extend our sadness.” During his victim’s impact statement, gun-wound survivor Dan Leger stated that the tragedy “left empty places in our hearts and homes. It has moved some to... experience hate themselves. It has moved [others to]... appreciate the fragility and beauty of life on earth.”

Our government is a constitutional democracy. And we subscribe to our nation’s laws. New Light Congregation’s public declaration captured the perspective of most U.S. Jews: “We live by the American legal system, where there are rules... We are prepared to trust the system.” 

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.