In the latest battle to determine if accused synagogue shooter Robert Bowers should be executed, federal prosecutors want their own experts to examine him to challenge a defense assertion that he has schizophrenia and other brain impairments.
Bowers, 50, of Baldwin Borough, is set for trial in federal court at the end of next month in the 2018 massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
It’s the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
There’s little doubt of his guilt; the real issue is whether he should be executed in the federal death chamber in Indiana.
The defense — several public defenders and two anti-death penalty lawyers from California — want a plea deal for life in prison.
The U.S. government wants death.
The two sides have been sparring in court ever since the October 2018 day when Bowers, wounded by police bullets, was first hauled into the U.S. courthouse in a wheelchair.
Last week, the defense team gave notice that it will present diagnoses of schizophrenia, epilepsy and “functional and structural impairments of the brain” as mitigating factors in the penalty phase of the trial.
The notice was contained in a response to an earlier government request to do a psychiatric and neuropsychological evaluation on Bowers.
Prosecutors said yesterday that they want their own experts to do a mental health exam “solely to rebut mitigation evidence.”
They also want U.S. District Judge Robert Colville to reject a defense request that prosecutors give advance notice of the tests their experts give Bowers and deny a request that would prevent the experts from doing the same tests the defense experts did.
“This ‘heads-I-win, tails-you-lose’ approach to litigation places the government at a patently unfair disadvantage,” prosecutors said.
The defense also wants to delay the mental health tests until after the guilt phase of the trial. But prosecutors said Colville should reject that idea because it will cause a delay of at least three weeks after the guilt phase.
In addition, Bowers’ lawyers want to be present when the government’s experts do their testing, but prosecutors say that shouldn’t be allowed because it would be disruptive and would give the defense an “unwarranted preview” of the government’s rebuttal evidence.
Prosecutors say Judge Colville should order that the testing happen at the U.S. courthouse, allow the exams to be recorded and force the defense to turn over the opinions of its own experts as opposed to the raw data of various brain tests, such as CT and PET scans, they have said they will provide.
Last year the defense said two experts, a psychiatrist and a neurologist, interviewed Bowers to form opinions. Three other experts — a neuropsychiatrist, a radiologist and a neuroradiologist — reviewed records and the scan data but didn’t interview him.
Jury selection is set to begin April 24 and will last several weeks. The trial is expected to extend into July.
Bowers is the fourth defendant in the history of the Western District of Pennsylvania, which comprises 25 counties, to face the federal death penalty.
None of the others was executed.
Joseph Minerd used a bomb to blow up a house in Connellsville in 1999 to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend because she refused to get an abortion. Her 3-year-old daughter also died. A federal jury in Pittsburgh convicted him but spared him the death penalty. Now 70, he is serving life in federal prison in New Hampshire.
Lawrence Skiba of White Oak hired a Chicago hitman to kill a McKeesport car dealer in 2000 so he could collect on a life insurance policy. He had faced death but pleaded guilty and cooperated against the hit man. Now 67, he was released in 2019.
Jelani Solomon of Beaver Falls ordered the killing of a witness just before his drug trial in 2004. A jury spared him death. Now 44, he is serving life at the federal prison in McKean County.