Man convicted of killing 11 in deadliest antisemitic attack in US history

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018. Robert Bowers, a truck driver who shot and killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the nation's deadliest attack on Jewish people, was found guilty, Friday, June 16, 2023. Bowers was tried on 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of the shooting. Credit: AP

A truck driver has been convicted of barging into a synagogue and killing 11 people in the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, Robert Bowers shot everyone he could find in the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He also shot and wounded seven others, including five responding police officers, during his rampage on October 27, 2018.

Today Bowers, 50, was convicted of all 63 criminal counts he faced, including hate crimes resulting in death, and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.

His lawyers conceded on the outset that he attacked and killed worshipers – offering a guilty plea in return for a life sentence.

Prosecutors refused, opting instead to take the case to trial and pursue the death penalty – a decision supported by most of the victims’ families.

Robert Bowers Credit: AP

The jury deliberated for around five hours over two days before reaching their verdict.

Now, jurors must decide whether Bowers should be sent to death row or sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Bowers turned a sacred house of worship into a “hunting ground”, targeting his victims because of their religion, a prosecutor told jurors on Thursday.

Reading the names of each of the 11 victims he killed, prosecutor Mary Hahn asked the jury to “hold him accountable for those who cannot testify”.

Over 11 days of testimony by prosecutors, jurors learned that Bowers had extensively posted, shared or liked anti-Semitic and white supremacist content on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far right.

He praised Hitler and the Holocaust, and told police that “all these Jews need to die,” Ms Hahn said.

The three congregations that shared the synagogue - Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life — have spoken out against anti-Semitism. Credit: AP

Survivors testified about the terror they felt that day, including a woman who recounted how she was shot in the arm and then realized her 97-year-old-mother had been killed right next to her.

Andrea Wedner, the trial’s last witness, told jurors she touched her mother’s lifeless body and cried out, “Mommy,” before SWAT officers led her to safety.

Bowers’ attorneys did not mount a defence at the guilt stage of the trial, signalling they will focus their efforts on trying to save his life.

They plan to introduce evidence that Bowers has schizophrenia, epilepsy and brain impairments.

Defence lawyer Judy Clarke had also sought to raise questions about Bowers’ motive.

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She suggested to jurors that his rampage was not motivated by religious hatred but his delusional belief that Jews were committing genocide by helping refugees settle in the United States.

The trial took place three years after President Joe Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it.

His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures.

But federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold already-issued death sentences and, in some cases, to pursue the death penalty at trial for crimes that are eligible, as in Bowers’ case.