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Jury finds Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter eligible for death penalty

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A jury in Pittsburgh has found Robert Bowers acted with intent when he shot and killed 11 people and injured seven others at a synagogue in 2018. Today's decision means that Bowers is eligible to be sentenced to death. Oliver Morrison of member station WESA joins us from the federal courthouse. Oliver, the same jury found Morrison guilty - actually found Bowers guilty of 63 charges last month. Tell us more about this phase of the trial.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: So this phase is a little unusual. It's in between the guilt phase where he's already found guilty, but before the jury will decide his sentence, whether he'll get the death penalty or life in prison. And it's all about eligibility. Is he eligible for the death penalty? There's basically two things the prosecution had to prove in this phase. And one was that - was it a really bad crime, one that deserves the death penalty? And that really wasn't in dispute here because the victims were vulnerable. There were so many victims, things like that. What was in dispute was whether he had the proper intent while he was committing those crimes. And the defense had argued on his behalf that he had schizophrenia and epilepsy and that because of these mental health issues, that he didn't really form the intent.

So, like, one of the things we learned in this phase of the trial, because Bowers didn't testify in the first phase, is we heard from some of the psychologists who interviewed the shooter. And we learned that he actually didn't show any remorse for his crimes, that, in fact, he wished he had committed more and been able to kill more people. And the defense argued that this was proof that, you know, he had a mental illness, that he couldn't let go of the crimes even now as he was on trial. But the prosecution argued that actually what we learned from him was that he had a lot of intent, that - we learned when we talked to him, that he had been planning this for months, that he had thought about other Jewish targets in Pittsburgh and beyond Pittsburgh, that he had thought about other methods of committing this crime, such as releasing gas in the synagogue. And he had thought about other days. And so ultimately, the prosecution's argument won out with the jury this time.

MARTÍNEZ: And just to be clear, this is a federal case. So even though the crime happened in Pennsylvania, that state's death penalty would not apply. How would it apply federally?

MORRISON: So right now, there's a moratorium at the federal level about the death penalty. So they're sort of looking into it about how to do it more fairly. And so it wouldn't happen immediately. But typically in cases like this, there's a long appeals process anyway. So if he were sentenced to the death penalty, it very well could be the case that, you know, he would receive the death penalty. Particularly, I think if you hear some of the political discourse right now, two of the leading Republican presidential candidates have said that they want to have more executions and make more crimes eligible for the death penalty, so it's partly a political question.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, I know this happened just about an hour ago. So what's been the reaction so far?

MORRISON: Well, one of the issues is that with - the families are not unified. Many of them do want the death penalty for Bowers, but not all of them. And so a lot of what the reaction is, is kind of muted in that people want to give space for each of the families to kind of - and victims to speak for themselves rather than sort of, you know, impose what a general feeling is. But there is a press conference going on right now, and those families are beginning to make their voices heard.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Oliver Morrison of WESA joining us from the federal court in Pittsburgh. Oliver, thanks.

MORRISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Oliver Morrison