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Jury reached its decision in penalty phrase of Tree of Life killer

The panel would have to be unanimous for death if Robert Gregory Bowers, 50, is to be executed for the Oct. 27, 2018 mass shooting in Pittsburgh.
/ Source: NBC News

A federal jury reached its decision Thursday in the penalty phase of the Tree of Life synagogue killer, determining if the convicted murderer should face capital punishment.

The panel in Pittsburgh reached its verdict after two hours of deliberations, weighing the fate of Robert Gregory Bowers, 50, who was convicted last month on all 63 federal charges in the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.

The government is seeking the death penalty and U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville would have to impose capital punishment if the panel ultimately recommends death.

A mourner stands in front of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2018.
A mourner stands in front of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2018.Matt Rourke / AP file

“We are grateful for the jury’s effort to reach a just decision today,” Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters outside the courthouse.

“The federation does not have a position on the death penalty. But this was an act of antisemitism and the defendant deserves to answer for his crime.”

The shooting that shocked the nation happened 4½ years ago in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

The massacre took the lives of Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; and Melvin Wax, 87.

“I also hope that the next phase of the trial, which will allow the families of the victims an opportunity to speak, will give them a sense of relief and fulfillment,” Finkelstein said.

The community and even loved ones of victims are not unified in opinion on whether Bowers should be put to death for the mass shooting, according to Finkelstein.

“There is some divide, not only between congregations but also among the victims’ families,” Finkelstein said. “There’s always different opinions.”

The defense argued that the shooter is psychotic and has brain abnormalities, leading to his deadly actions that day in Pittsburgh.

But the government maintained the truck driver from nearby Baldwin was a bigot who understood what he was doing the day of the massacre.

He was active on social media, ranting about immigrants, pushing conspiracy theories and threatening Jews.

“This was an act of antisemitism, not an issue of mental illness,” Finkelstein said. “This was hatred toward Jews. I want to thank the jury for all of their incredible work.”

Bowers’ defense lawyers and prosecutors did not make themselves immediately available for comment on Thursday.

Carolina Gonzalez reported from Pittsburgh and David K. Li from New York City.

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