Since May 30, Jewish worshippers, first responders, forensic scientists and social media experts have entered the Joseph F. Weis Jr. federal courthouse and sworn to the truthfulness of their testimony. On Thursday morning, jurors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial were reminded why.
“You have seen and heard all the evidence,” Judge Robert Colville told them. “Now it’s time to decide the facts.”
For nearly an hour, Colville gave the jury its final instructions regarding the 63 criminal counts Robert Bowers faces for killing 11 innocent worshippers and seriously wounding two others, along with several police officers.
Some of the charges carry a potential death sentence.
“The number of charges is not evidence of guilt,” Colville told the jury. Each charge contains a number of elements that the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and the burden of proof remains on the government.
To reach a guilty verdict for some of the charges, the jury must find that the defendant was motivated to cause death or bodily injury specifically because of the religion of his victims, the judge said. Once a verdict on guilt is returned, the penalty phases of the trial will begin.
Following closing arguments from the prosecution and defense, the jury began its deliberations around 2:30 p.m. By 5 p.m. — the close of business — no verdict had been returned.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has followed the trial. He praised the case put on by the prosecution and the strength of the witnesses.
“I think what we saw is a prosecution team that was supremely organized, ready, told its story flawlessly, and a group of witnesses who did the very, very difficult thing of telling these most awful stories about things that they couldn’t have imagined ever happening to them,” Harris said. “And they did so with dignity and grace no matter how difficult it was.”
Harris said he wasn’t surprised that the defense presented no witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial.
“I think that reinforces the point that really all this has just been a prelude for them to the central and only point of the defense, and that is to contest the imposition of the death penalty,” he said.
On the other hand, if the defendant is found guilty, Harris expects the defense to offer a lot of evidence during the trial’s next phase, which will begin a week after the jury delivers its verdict.
“The next phase is what it’s always been about for them,” he said. “It is about whether the death penalty is imposed. And this now begins the real contest for them. Everything else has just been prelude.”
Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, has been in the courthouse every day, providing emotional support to the victims, the families of victims and other community members.
She said that hearing all the details about what transpired could help community members in their healing process, which she said, “was really about truth and being able to put the pieces together.”
Feinstein stressed that those targeted on Oct. 27, 2018, were engaged in religious worship.
“What we’ve seen over the last three weeks has really been an opportunity to hear more about the ways in which Jews have continued to practice … and hold sacred the Sabbath and the ways in which a lot of our community members who were doing that were interrupted that day,” she said.
Shawn Brokos, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said she expects the defendant to be found guilty.
“I can’t imagine the jury not coming back swiftly with a guilty verdict on all 63 counts,” she said.
She said the federation is prepared to increase community security if there is “fallout from the verdict.”
“While I’m confident it will be a guilty verdict, I know there is a population of the defendant’s supporters who have been vocal and may become increasingly vocal given a guilty verdict,” she said. “So, we are fully staffed at our command post, and we are watching. We’re watching all relative social media platforms and traffic for anything concerning.
“I don’t know that a guilty verdict would spur his supporters into action, but you hope for the best and plan for the worst,” she said. “So, if we have to increase our security posture at a moment’s notice, we’re prepared to do that. I think the verdict coming in, from a security perspective, is something we need to keep a very close eye on.”
Brokos praised the victims and witnesses “for their strength and their bravery and their professionalism. They didn’t falter. They didn’t complain. They were stalwarts, they supported one another, and it was really an amazing sight to witness.”
As difficult as it was for the witnesses to testify, state Rep. Dan Frankel said, it was “a necessary exercise for our community to go through.
“Going through this process, as painful as it might be, helps us understand the challenges we have as a community, we have as a society, dealing with the normalization of not only antisemitism, but racism and bigotry that we’ve seen reach a crescendo in the last few years,” said Frankel, D-Allegheny, who represents Squirrel Hill. “The stories these survivors tell is an important part of that process that gives us the opportunity to reflect, to remember and will be there for posterity as a marker for when this community was attacked and how resilient it has been, and going through this trial is a mark of that resilience.”
Frankel said he is working in Harrisburg to fight bigotry — and the “normalization” of bigotry — “by introducing some tools for communities that address hate crimes. In and of itself that’s not sufficient, but it’s at least something that will help our communities address this crisis.”
For Frankel, the prospect of a guilty verdict doesn’t provide relief.
“I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m prepared to be vigilant and speak out whenever I see evidence of this kind of hatred, whether it’s against Jews, against African Americans, against the LGBTQ community, against Asian-Pacific Americans. We see it everywhere, and we need to be vigilant, and I think this trial was helpful in helping us make sure we keep our eye on the ball and don’t let up.”
Shortly after the jury left the courtroom and headed into deliberations, leaders of New Light Congregation — one of the three congregations attacked in the Tree of Life building, along with Dor Hadash and Tree of Life — issued a statement to the press. “There can be no forgiveness. Forgiveness requires two components: that it is offered by the person who commits the wrong and is accepted by the person who was wronged. The shooter has not asked — and the dead cannot accept.”
Adam Reinherz and David Rullo are staff writers and Toby Tabachnick is editor at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and Andrew Goldstein writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress. This 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.