Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh

Column: Must Pittsburgh Jews Endure Another Trial?

Carol Black, 71, was the second witness to testify on the second day of trial in the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. She recounted sitting next to her brother, Richard Gottfried, before he was murdered. She hid in the storeroom with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and two other members of the New Light congregation when the gunman entered the nearby kitchen and killed her brother and congregant Dan Stein.

There was a pause, and Melvin Wax peeked out of the storeroom to see what was going on. The killer shot him twice and he fell at Black’s feet, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The murderer remained in the area for awhile and left. Emergency responders discovered the group hiding in the storeroom. Wax’s body still lay there.

“I had to step over him to get past him,” Black testified. “Quietly to myself I said goodbye to him and followed the officers.”

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is currently forced to relive the murders of 11 members of three congregations who gathered to worship at Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, and  the experience is obviously most traumatic for surviving victims who testified at the alleged gunman’s trial.

This present trial, which opened on Tuesday last week, may not be the last for Robert Bowers, the defendant. It is conceivable that he can face a second trial after this one wraps up, which means Pittsburgh’s Jews might relive this nightmare a second time. Will that be necessary? I do not think so.

Blame the ground rules of a multi-tiered legal system. When the suspect was arrested, he was vulnerable to being tried twice, once by federal authorities and once by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office; Pittsburgh is part of Allegheny County.

The present trial, a federal procedure directed by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, focuses on the civil rights violations that the crimes represent. Prosecutors seek to prove that the gunman was driven by antisemitism, which would tip his punishment to the death penalty. His defense attorney hopes to limit his sentence to life by convincing the jury that his intentions were not prejudicial, according to JTA.

Both sides concur that Bowers is guilty of slaughtering the 11 congregants as well as wounding other victims. That leaves open his motives, and his sentence may well hinge on that.

Even the civil rights elements dominate the wording of the charges. Of 63 federal charges, the AG’s office brought 22 capital crime counts, two for each murder. One is “obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, and the other is murder, enhanced with a hate-crime charge, JTA reports.

Bowers also faces 36 state charges, including 11 counts of murder, according to The New York Times. The Allegheny County DA’s office is holding these charges in abeyance for the federal trial. That could include charges of state bias crimes.

Charging the accused for his prejudices raises disturbing questions. It means that he is not only on trial for his actions but also for his beliefs. In Bowers’s case, he could receive the death sentence for antisemitism, yet if he can prove other reasons unrelated to bigotry he might get away with life in prison.

He killed the same people. He committed one of the most despicable crimes on the books. Why should he be spared the death penalty if he does not hate Jews?

Naturally, it could only be antisemitism that made him decide to travel to a synagogue located in Pittsburgh’s prime Jewish community, carry a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and three Glock 357 handguns into the temple and gun down whoever he could find.

His defense attorney, Judy Clarke, intends to prove that her client acted out of a delusion that they were facilitating an immigration invasion to supplant whites, according to JTA. Both sides concede that the defendant, a white supremacist, went to the building because one congregation, Dor Hadash, had partnered with HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group, to conduct a National Refugee Shabbat.

So why didn’t he leave the other two congregations alone? Sorry, but can we expect Clarke to convince the jury of that?

The death penalty is also an issue here. The jury must first decide if the defendant committed the crime, which is almost automatic, and then it must determine his sentence – life or the death penalty. I have mixed feelings about it, and I am mainly against it because if a suspect is wrongly convicted then it is too late to help him.

Granted, there is no question about Bowers’s guilt, but let’s keep this guide consistent. Death-penalty opponents have other reasons. If the death penalty was off the table, his motive would make no difference.

The system is duplicative if a defendant is tried twice on charges that, if not identical, are certainly similar. The outcome for either trial probably will not be any different.

A state trial would be sufficient. The outcome will probably be similar to that of a federal trial, and state bias-crime charges will probably be incorporated, anyway. Federal intervention would only be necessary if the District Attorney’s office fouls up.

Charges of bias crimes amount to a contrivance. They have the effect of adding punishment  that is based on what a person thinks. Supporters of hate-crimes do contortions to justify it. Defense attorneys shape their cases to minimize sentences for their clients.

Designation of bias crimes is useful for compiling statistics, but not to augment punishment. If a sentence for the act itself is not stiff enough, then something is wrong with the system. The duplication for prosecutions wastes taxpayer money and the affected community must endure it once again. It is bizarre when people exult if bias-crime charges are added to a case.

It brings to mind a scenario in which a hoodlum attacks a Jewish man, who repeatedly asks the attacker why he is doing this. Finally, the assailant proclaims: “You dirty Jew!”

The Jewish guy’s eyes light up: “Now you’re in real trouble.”

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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