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Jury recommends death sentence for gunman in 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A federal jury in Pittsburgh recommended the death penalty today for the man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers in 2018. That was considered the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history. In addition to those 11 deaths, six other people were injured. Oliver Morrison from member station WESA was in court to hear the jury's decision. Hi, Oliver.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Hi.

PFEIFFER: Was the death penalty recommendation a surprise?

MORRISON: For most people, I don't think so. He was already convicted on 63 different counts, and the jury decided he was guilty of 200 aggravating factors that showed that his crime was just worse than normal. During the last phase of the trial, the jury deliberated for less than two hours. During this phase, it did deliberate for almost a day and a half, which made it seem like it was taking it more seriously. But the defense lawyers had a hard time because Bowers showed no remorse. What he told psychiatrists was that he wished he had actually killed more people.

PFEIFFER: What defense was offered by his lawyers?

MORRISON: So they gave a few different defenses. One was that he suffered a tragic childhood, and that was - seemed to be true. And then he himself was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital multiple times. The second part was that he had schizophrenia - that he had a hard time telling right from wrong. He had these delusions. And part of their evidence was that he only became antisemitic and developed these beliefs less than a year before the attack. So they thought that this was evidence it was a delusion. Then, finally, they just tried some general sympathy. They brought his aunt to the stand. But, tellingly, his mom never did take the stand to testify on his behalf.

PFEIFFER: The fact that there was a death penalty recommendation certainly suggests that the jury did not find that defense persuasive. But do we know anything about how the jury responded to the arguments by defense and prosecutors?

MORRISON: Yeah, we do. The jury said that they agreed with every single one of the prosecution's arguments, including that he showed no remorse, that the victims were especially vulnerable. They said they believed part of the defense's arguments - the parts that showed that he had a tragic childhood. Nearly all the jury members, like, agreed with many of the defense statements about his childhood, but they didn't agree with the diagnosis that he had schizophrenia. Experts disagreed in court on that, and the jury didn't come to that conclusion. The jury's job is to then sort of weigh those two factors, since they believed part of both sides, and see what is more serious. And for the jury, it was just a lot more serious. There was more and more weight to what he did than to the things that he suffered.

PFEIFFER: And Oliver, I understand the Jewish community there was divided over whether he should be put to death. Do you have a sense of how people are feeling today?

MORRISON: Well, a bunch of the survivors and family members gathered at the Jewish Community Center this afternoon after the verdict. And that's a critical space because this is the same room that they all came to on the night of the shooting to find out whether their loved ones survived or not. It's also - the Jewish Community Center is the place they learned later during the trial was a second place that Bowers was planning to attack that he called off at the last minute. And they began with a prayer from the Tree of Life rabbi, Jeffrey Myers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY MYERS: (Speaking Hebrew). What we've just said is, praised are you, oh, God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

MORRISON: They had a lot of different feelings about what happened, and relief was one of them. But tomorrow, they said they'll get another chance in court to speak during the sentencing hearing, and they're hoping that people will be able to hear them then.

PFEIFFER: Thank you for that. That's Oliver Morrison, member station WESA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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