Robert Bowers has been institutionalized for psychiatric issues and has attempted suicide, one of his lawyers told a federal court jury on Monday.
Attorney Michael Burt introduced those revelations as part of a defense effort to bolster the contention that Bowers is impaired and shouldn’t be executed for the Tree of Life synagogue building massacre.
Burt said in opening statements in the eligibility phase of the trial that Bowers, 50, suffers from “chronic mental illness” that led directly to the mass killing on Oct. 27, 2018.
He said various doctors will testify about brain scans that show structural abnormalities.
Bowers, he said, is schizophrenic and suffers from epilepsy. His psychiatric problems date to his childhood and left him “unable to make proper decisions based on his delusional beliefs.”
Bowers was convicted two weeks ago of slaughtering 11 worshippers from three congregations at the synagogue building. The parties are now squaring off over whether he is eligible for the death penalty.
Prosecutors argue that he is and said they’ll show why.
To get a death sentence, they have to prove that the defendant acted with intent. They also have to introduce at least one “aggravating factor” and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti said the government can present many. In addition to those he killed, he said, Bowers created a “grave risk” to a dozen others he tried to kill. Rivetti also said Bowers carefully planned the attacks, including wiping clean his computer and phone to cover his tracks. And, Rivetti said, he targeted vulnerable victims who couldn’t escape because of age or infirmity.
Prosecutors argue that Bowers was motivated by his hatred of Jews and hunted them down in their place of worship.
“He killed victim after victim with his AR-15 rifle,” Rivetti said. “He came to kill, and he was filled with hate.”
Rivetti said Bowers’ own lawyers said there is no question that he planned the killings.
He said Bowers made “decision after decision” in targeting the victims, from his online rantings against Jews to driving a half-hour from his Baldwin apartment to the synagogue with a car filled with weapons and the systematic, room-to-room slayings.
When a SWAT team officer asked him why he’d gone on the rampage, Rivetti said, Bowers answered: “All these Jews need to die.”
Rivetti said the issue at hand is simple: Did he intend to kill?
“That is easily proven,” he said.
Rivetti also noted that the defense lawyers would likely introduce mental health evidence. If they do, he said, “We will respond.”
Burt did just that and named a series of UPMC and other doctors who will testify about Bowers’ supposed abnormal brain function.
Later in the morning, the prosecution began presenting relatives of those killed to establish their vulnerability on the day of the murders.
The first was Diane Rosenthal, sister of David and Cecil Rosenthal, mentally challenged brothers in their 50s whom Bowers gunned down.
Rosenthal, who lives in Chicago, said her brothers functioned on the level of preschoolers.
They couldn’t tie their shoes; they couldn’t read; loud noises scared them. Both especially loved the weekly worship services at Tree of Life.
“That,” she said, “was their safe space.”
The eligibility phase of the trial is expected to last one or two weeks. If the jury decides unanimously that the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, a third trial phase will begin to determine whether or not he will be sentenced to death.
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.