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Gunman in Pittsburgh synagogue massacre planned attack, defense acknowledges as trial gets underway

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(AP) — A trial for the man charged in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history opened Tuesday with his own lawyer acknowledging he planned the 2018 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue and made hateful statements about Jewish people.

Robert Bowers went to Tree of Life synagogue and “shot every person he saw,” defense attorney Judy Clarke acknowledged in her opening statement.

Bowers, 50, could face the death penalty if convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack, which claimed the lives of 11 worshippers from three congregations who shared the building. Charges include 11 counts each of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

In the long run-up to the trial, Bower’s lawyers had done little to cast doubt on whether he was the gunman, instead focusing on trying to save his life. Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors turned him down.

In her opening statement, Clarke questioned whether Bowers was acting out of hatred, or an irrational belief that he needed to kill Jews to save others from the genocide he claimed they were enabling by helping immigrants come into the U.S.

“He had what to us is this unthinkable, nonsensical, irrational thought that by killing Jews he would attain his goal,” Clarke said, adding: “There is no making sense of this senseless act. Mr. Bowers caused extraordinary harm to many, many people.”

In their own statement to the jury, prosecutors described how Bowers barged into the synagogue and shot every worshipper he could find.

“The depths of the defendant’s malice and hate can only be proven in the broken bodies” of the victims and “his hateful words,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song said.

Some of the survivors dabbed tears during Song’s presentation, while Bowers, seated at the defense table, showed no reaction.

Twelve jurors and six alternates — chosen Thursday after more than 200 candidates were questioned over a month — are hearing the case. They include 11 women and seven men.

Members of the three congregations arrived at the courthouse in a school bus and entered together. The atmosphere in the large, wood-paneled courtroom was grim and somber as the gallery filled with media, survivors and family members,

Prosecutors have said Bowers made antisemitic comments at the scene of the attack and online.

As an indication that the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial seemed almost a foregone conclusion, Bowers’ lawyers spent little time during jury selection asking how potential jurors would come to a verdict.

Instead, they focused on the penalty phase and how jurors would decide whether to impose the death penalty in a case of a man charged with hate-motivated killings in a house of worship. The defense probed whether potential jurors could consider factors such as mental illness or a difficult childhood. Bowers’ attorneys recently said he has schizophrenia and brain impairments.

The families of those killed are divided over whether the government should pursue the death penalty, but most have voiced support for it.

The trial is taking place in the downtown Pittsburgh courthouse of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, presided over by Judge Robert Colville, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

Prosecutors have said Bowers made incriminating statements to investigators and left an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred. Police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.

 

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