Several defense witnesses testified Tuesday about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s adolescence and employment history — although many of them had no personal memory of him.
In this third and final trial phase, the jury must determine whether Robert Bowers will be sentenced to death for killing 11 worshippers from three congregations at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. In June, jurors found him guilty on 63 federal counts, and earlier this month, they determined that he was eligible for the death penalty.
The day’s first witness was Gary Phillips, who spent 38 years working at The Bradley Center, a residential treatment facility for youth where Robert Bowers spent about six months in the 1980s. Like many witnesses Tuesday, Phillips does not recall the defendant personally, so his testimony was based on records.
Consulting a report from a staffing meeting, he spoke about the defendant’s diagnosis of major depressive disorder and documented relationship struggles with his mother and peers.
While the shooter was initially projected to remain in the center for a year, he improved during the spring and left in June. Leading up to that, he had shown interest in school, improved his relationship with his mother and was taken off medication — all reasons for discharge, according to Phillips.
Martina Mock, who testified next, was also an employee at The Bradley Center. She worked as a departmental specialist, creating educational goals for each child. Mock similarly did not remember the defendant.
At one point, he destroyed a history book, but she said this was “not out of the ordinary” for kids in the program. With encouragement over time, he became liked by his peers and improved in many subjects — preparing him to attend middle school outside of the center. According to her records, he showed an aptitude for computer science, math and cooking.
Another psychotherapist said that she recommended further counseling for the defendant and his family after his discharge but was not aware that his mother requested a different therapist.
After this brief testimony, Frank Ray, who knew the defendant as a teenager, took the stand. He echoed Mock’s assessment of his intelligence, noting his “mechanical aptitude. Among his peers, he was known for crafting explosives and blowing things up.”
“That was definitely his niche,” Ray added.
Ray’s other recollections of the shooter included his desire for a motorcycle of his own, his mother’s tendencies of long showers, and Oreo cookies frequently left in packages around the apartment, which Ray visited a few times, that nobody was supposed to touch.
One memory that stuck out to Ray was when the defendant helped him make it back to a pier safely when they were swimming together with a group of friends. He credits Bowers with likely saving his life by supporting him in the water, like a lifeguard.
The following witness, Kelly McKinley, also knows the defendant from Baldwin High School. Despite never really interacting with him before, she went to the hospital to visit him after hearing about an incident when he burned himself with a cigarette after spilling alcohol on himself. He was covered in gauze when she got there, and he wrote “I love you” on a whiteboard.
Later, the defendant enlisted her help in a plan to escape from St. Francis Hospital, where he was healing from his burns — during a visit with her and his mother, the pair tried to escape from the car they were both in, running in opposite directions.
Patricia Diggs was a member of the defendant’s and his mother’s congregation at Pittsburgh Christian Fellowship and remembered going out to brunch and to their house when the defendant was a child. She recalls that the house was disorganized, and the mother and son’s relationship seemed disconnected. At one point, she gave the mother a check for $50 to help with food, which she ended up spending on cosmetics, a disappointment.
The next two witnesses had no personal memories of the shooter: Marty Samuels and Ronald Stone, who both worked at St. Francis when the defendant was there and spoke mainly about program details. The next, a guidance counselor, recalled working with Bowers, who was “quiet” and “respectful” despite accumulating absences and failing grades.
To close out the day’s testimony, two more defense witnesses testified about the defendant’s employment history.
Jason Erb, an employee at PAM trucking company in Ohio, did not remember the defendant either and spoke about the downsides of the job: long hours alone on the road, little human contact outside the dispatcher, and limited opportunities for fitness and healthy eating. He consulted records to confirm that the shooter left the job in 2016 (for a local position he thought would pay more) with a satisfactory performance and was eligible for rehire.
Michael McLellan, the defendant’s supervisor at Community Living and Support Services, praised his job performance. According to McLellan, the defendant was reliable, went above and beyond to complete tasks, and deftly handled the needs of two men he worked with, even checking in with them after he’d left the job.
During cross-examination, the prosecution established with both Erb and McLellan that these jobs required “more than minimal functioning.”
The trial continues Wednesday.
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.