Autopsy photos, crime scene images and a police body cam video will be shown to the jury in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial, the judge ruled Friday in rejecting a defense motion to bar the graphic evidence.
U.S. District Judge Robert Colville agreed with the prosecution that the images are relevant to show accused shooter Robert Bowers’ intent and will help the jury understand the chronology of the slaughter that left 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue building dead on Oct. 27, 2018.
The defense team didn’t dispute the relevance of the images but argued that they could be cumulative and cause “unfair prejudice” against the accused killer, especially since the lawyers aren’t contesting the time, place and manner of the murders.
The lawyers had also said showing all the images is a way for the government to ask jurors to put themselves in the shoes of the victims, which in legal circles is called the “golden rule” argument and isn’t allowed.
But the judge said he doesn’t see how admitting the photos is an improper appeal to the jury, “especially considering the routine admission of this kind of evidence.”
Bowers is accused of entering the Tree of Life building and gunning down worshippers from three congregations because of a hatred of Jews. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted. The parties spent the past month selecting a jury, which was finally seated on Thursday. Testimony is set to start Tuesday, and the trial could last two months.
The evidence at issue is 48 crime photos, 43 autopsy photos and a police body cam video, all of which are under seal.
Colville looked at them all and said he doesn’t think they are cumulative or will confuse the jury or waste time, as the defense argued. He said the crime photos show the scene from various angles and so are necessary for the jury to understand how the crime played out.
As to the autopsy photos, he said the government isn’t seeking to introduce images showing the most grievous wounds. The photos will help the jury follow the testimony of the medical examiner in establishing cause and manner of death, as in any murder case.
Colville said the video will be allowed because it provides context for the photos.
The judge also said the defense argument that the images shouldn’t be allowed because Bowers isn’t contesting the time, place and manner of the killings has no merit.
“Whether Defendant is willing to concede facts or not, the evidence is still admissible” under the law, he said.
Bowers is only the fourth defendant in the history of the Western District of Pennsylvania to face the federal death penalty. None was executed. Juries spared two of the others, and another pleaded guilty as part of a cooperation agreement against the killer in an interstate murder-for-hire plot.
If he is sentenced to death, the execution would be carried out in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.