David Harris wasn’t surprised by much that happened during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial.
“I expected a very well tried and hard fought case by both sides, and we saw that,” said Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “I expected difficult, traumatic, horrific testimony. We certainly had that. I expected and hoped that the victims and families would persevere and be able to carry off this very difficult job to honor their loved ones, and, to our great credit as a community, they did that.”
On Wednesday, a federal jury determined that convicted killer Robert Bowers should be sentenced to die. On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Colville formally sentenced him to death on all 22 capital offenses and to life in prison for most of the 41 noncapital offenses.
Harris said Colville was fair throughout the trial and ran the courtroom in a dignified and appropriate way. The judge, he said, exhibited “judicial temperament.”
“He allowed the lawyers to try the case, and at many junctures, he showed a willingness to give the defendant things that legally he didn’t have to,” Harris noted.
An example of that was splitting the trial into three phases rather than two. Colville granted that request by the defense out of abundance of caution and fairness, Harris said.
Harris wasn’t surprised that the jury unanimously found that the defense had proven some “mitigating factors” — such as the fact that the murderer’s father was discharged as unsuitable for military service or the fact that Children and Youth Services was called after his father threatened to kill him — while unanimously rejecting all of the mental health issues raised by the defense.
The inability of the defense to prove mental illness was what enabled the jury to impose the death penalty, Harris said.
“Mental health issues were the greatest hope for the defense of avoiding a death sentence,” he said, “So they put a lot in that because those were the cards that they had.”
That evidence, though, was far from straightforward, Harris said, adding that the defense’s case was hurt by the contradictory opinions offered by the various doctors.
“One of the things that really stood out to me,” he said, “was a defense psychiatrist saying, ‘This guy was delusional in his hatred of Jews and so forth.’
Park Dietz, the psychiatrist for the prosecution, said, ‘That’s not a delusion at all. That’s white supremacy. That’s racist hate. That’s antisemitism. And that’s not a delusion.’ ”
While those findings of fact can’t be appealed, Harris said, other appeals are certain.
Each objection made by the defense can be a basis for an appeal, he explained. In fact, he said, to preserve the right to appeal, it’s necessary for the defense to object and request mistrials, as it did when a U.S. marshal answered jurors’ questions as they examined the guns used by the killer. If those issues aren’t brought up during the trial, they can’t serve as the basis for an appeal.
“Do I think it’s likely that the entire set of verdicts, or just the death verdict, will be overturned because of those objections and motions in this trial?” Harris asked. “I don’t think it’s likely, but I think you can count on nearly all, if not all of them, showing up in appeals.”
The trial, Harris said, was a good example of the type of adversarial legal system we have in the United Sates. A bedrock of that system, he said, is both the prosecution and the defense presenting and challenging evidence in court. And while some might not like it — already there have been public outcries in various media outlets about the amount of money spent on the shooter’s defense — he said it’s taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for the system to work properly.
“If you want to have a system that works, you have to fund it adequately,” he said. “People don’t feel great about knowing the taxpayer dollars fund it, and that’s what we’re talking about — taxpayer money going to defend a person like this. I understand that, but we’re having a trial because justice requires it.”
Harris found one part of the trial unusual: Colville’s final statement to the jurors, during which his voice cracked with emotion.
“It is very typical for a judge to thank a jury for their service,” he said. “What is far less common is for a judge to show, even in a subtle way, any feeling for a jury. But it is not inappropriate in a setting like this.”
He said that what Colville demonstrated was his own humanity.
“Everybody knew the stakes were enormous, that a person’s life was being judged,” Harris said.
The testimony was horrific and traumatic, he said, noting that we like to think of judges as not being swayed by emotion and making the correct legal decisions. “Colville did that at every turn, but what you saw at that moment is that he is a human being, too,” Harris said. “He is a person. All the people sitting in judgment, the judge and jury in the trial, could not help but be deeply affected by what they heard for days and days and days.”
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.