Federal prosecutors said on Monday that they would seek the death penalty for the man accused of killing 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, in what has been called the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history.
In a court filing, they argue that “a sentence of death is justified” by the circumstances in 22 of the 63 federal charges against the man, Robert D. Bowers, citing his motivation and his “lack of remorse.”
The suspect, prosecutors said, “targeted men and women participating in Jewish religious worship at the Tree of Life Synagogue, located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is home to one of the largest and oldest urban Jewish populations in the United States, in order to maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national and international Jewish communities.”
The decision was announced in a filing with the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. It comes one month after Attorney General William Barr announced that the Justice Department would be resuming capital punishment for federal prisoners, which had been essentially on moratorium since 2003.
Federal prosecutors had for months been considering whether to seek the death penalty in the Pittsburgh case. In January, the federal public defenders representing the suspect were joined by Judy Clarke, a lawyer who has represented several high-profile prisoners and developed a reputation as a keen strategist at avoiding death sentences.
Lawyers representing the suspect could not be reached for comment.
Witnesses have said that the suspect shouted anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, and he frequently reposted racist memes online.
But the announcement was not unanimously welcomed by members of the three congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue, which was attacked as people were gathering to worship on the Saturday morning of Oct. 27.
“I don’t see that justice is being served by doing this,” said Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a member of the Dor Hadash congregation, was killed in the attack. “It just makes no sense to me.”
Some members have been hoping that the suspect would be granted a plea deal to life in prison so they could avoid revisiting the attack during a trial of intense public interest. But many believed that the Justice Department’s newfound willingness to use capital punishment and the nature of the shooting itself made the pursuit of a death sentence likely.
Ms. Rabinowitz was one of several from the Tree of Life congregations to write letters to Mr. Barr urging him not to pursue the death penalty.
In an Aug. 8 letter, she wrote that she did not want to “relive the horrific circumstances of Jerry’s murder through a trial,” and was concerned that it would give her husband’s murderer “a public platform from which to spew his most vicious, and sadly infectious brand of hatred.” Above all, she said, she saw that imposing capital punishment would be a “cruel and bitter irony” given her husband’s abhorrence of the death penalty.
Jonathan Perlman, the rabbi of another of the congregations, New Light, wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Mr. Barr that “a drawn out and difficult death penalty trial would be a disaster with witnesses and attorneys dredging up horrifying drama and giving this killer the media attention he does not deserve.”
The rabbi, whose congregation lost three members in the attack and who was at the synagogue that morning, also wrote of opposition to capital punishment on religious grounds, calling it a “cruel form of justice.”
In another letter to the attorney general, written on behalf of the Dor Hadash congregation, its president, Donna Coufal, echoed some of these same themes.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation, which lost seven members in the attack, declined to comment.