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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Judge sentences Pittsburgh synagogue gunman to death

A police officers outside the Jewish Community Center where families of the Tree of Life shooting victims were going to hold a news conference in Pittsburgh, Aug. 2, 2023.

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Campbell Robertson

A widow spoke of how her husband went to the Tree of Life synagogue to praise God and was instead riddled with bullets. A police officer described racing to the scene and finding his wounded colleague near other victims’ bodies. A woman who was shot recalled finding a fading pulse on her 97-year-old mother as they cowered together in the chapel.

Survivors of the massacre and relatives of the 11 worshippers who were killed on Oct. 27, 2018, in that Pittsburgh synagogue confronted the gunman in court Thursday with stories of grief, anger and perseverance. Then, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville sentenced the gunman, Robert Bowers, to death, carrying out the decision of the jury in the case.

One by one, the members of a grieving club formed against their will stepped up to a microphone in a fifth-floor courtroom and described the holes left in their lives by the gunman. All the while, Bowers, 50, who had raged against Jewish people during the attack and has shown no remorse since, looked the other way and flipped through a stack of papers.

“He murdered a 97-year-old great-grandmother, but he did not get us all,” said Andrea Wedner, who had hidden under the chapel’s pews with her mother, Rose Mallinger, where they were both shot. Wedner said that as she waited 40 long minutes there for help, she wondered whether her husband and children thought she was dead. When help finally came, she recalled, she had to step over the bodies of people she knew.

“I am haunted and forever chilled as I think about what I saw as I was being rescued that day,” Wedner said.

Peg Durachko, whose husband, Richard Gottfried, was killed in the kitchen of the synagogue, said the attack had left her alone.

“Rich was the most important person in my life — my whole family,” she said. “Your hateful act took my soul mate from me, left me totally alone.”

Daniel Leger, a member of Dor Hadash, one of three congregations in the synagogue that day, was shot in the chest in the attack. He spoke directly to the gunman on Thursday, telling Bowers that he wished he would look up from his papers “long enough to look at me, the Jew he tried to kill.” Bowers did not react.

During the sentencing portion of the trial, Bowers’ lawyers described his troubled childhood: His parents fought, and each threatened to kill him when he was a baby, and his father killed himself when Bowers was 7. The jury had to weigh more than 100 mitigating and aggravating factors asserted by the government and the defense, and accepted many of the assertions about the defendant’s difficult life — including that he was committed to a psychiatric unit at 13. But they did not agree with the defense on some key points, rejecting the argument that Bowers had schizophrenia and had carried out the shooting “under mental or emotional disturbance.”

Many relatives and survivors who spoke in the wake of the verdict said they were grateful that Bowers would be sentenced to death, although some people who were connected to the shooting had previously said they opposed it.

Rabbi Doris Dyen, who arrived at the synagogue with her husband during the attack and heard gunshots inside, said Bowers had forfeited his right to live by carrying out the attack, and that executing him would keep him from sharing his harmful ideas.

“He must never again be allowed to spread his hateful, antisemitic views to others, whether in person, in print, through the media, and especially online,” Dyen told the court.

Alan Mallinger, the son of Mallinger, quoted a biblical passage, Leviticus 24:21, saying, “One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it, but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”

The judge also handed down a series of consecutive life sentences on many of the other charges that Bowers faced. The jury’s recommendation of death concerned the 22 hate crimes and civil rights offenses connected to the killings that Bowers carried out in the synagogue. But he was convicted on 41 other federal counts, too, including firearms charges.

“Those are counts on which he was found guilty, and therefore he must receive a sentence, and the sentence has to be in accordance with the law,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

In the unlikely event that the death sentence is overturned on appeal, Harris said, Bowers would still be incarcerated on those other sentences.

“He didn’t only murder these people, he did other things, too,” he said. “And so we recognize the whole of the case, even though carrying out the death sentence would take care of any other sentence that he faces.”

What happens after Thursday’s sentencing is less clear. Like all people sentenced to death, Bowers was automatically granted an appeal, and his lawyers have indicated that they intend to pursue it.

He was also charged with 36 counts in state court, including 11 counts of murder. The district attorney of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, agreed to pause the state prosecution while the federal process unfolded.

In a statement Wednesday, the district attorney’s office said that because of the “emotional strain” of the federal trial for victims, relatives and the community, “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on our charges until we have had a chance to meet with the families.”

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