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More than four years after theat a Pittsburgh synagogue, a federal trial that could lead to the suspect being sentenced to the death penalty got underway Tuesday with prosecutors saying he had “malice and hate” for Jewish people. were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue during the .
During opening statements, an attorney for the suspect, Robert Bowers, didn’t dispute that her client was behind the rampage, CBS News Pittsburgh. Attorney Judy Clarke told jurors she wouldn’t have much to say as the prosecution laid out its case and that she would focus on her client’s “motive and intent” in the next phase of the trial.
The 50-year-old suspect faces 63 counts in the attack, which claimed the lives of worshippers from three congregations who were sharing the building, Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life. Charges include 11 counts each of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.
The suspect, 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. The suspect’s attorneys also recently said he has schizophrenia and brain impairments.
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.
Prosecutors on Tuesday described how the heavily armed suspect 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 during her opening statement.
Some of the survivors dabbed tears, while the suspect, seated at the defense table, showed no reaction. Members of the three congregations arrived at the courthouse in a school bus and entered together.
Prosecutors have said the suspect made antisemitic comments at the scene of the attack and online.
In proceedings before and during juror questioning, the defense has done little to cast doubt on whether the suspect was the shooter and has instead focused on preventing his execution.
As an indication that the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial seems almost a foregone conclusion, the suspect’s 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.
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 federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, presided over by Judge Robert Colville, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
Prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about incriminatory statements the suspect allegedly made to investigators, an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred, and the guns recovered from him at the crime scene, where police shot the suspect three times before he surrendered.
They indicated in court filings that they might introduce autopsy records and 911 recordings during the trial, including recordings of two calls from victims who were subsequently shot to death. They have said their evidence includes a Colt AR-15 rifle, three Glock .357 handguns and hundreds of cartridge cases, bullets and bullet fragments.
The suspect also injured seven people, including five police officers who responded to the scene, investigators said.
In a filing earlier this year, prosecutors said the suspect “harbored deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.
Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that the suspect had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”
The three congregations have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the attack. The Tree of Life congregation also is working with partners on plans to overhaul its current structure, which still stands but has been closed since the shootings, by creating a complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.
The death penalty trial is proceeding three years after President Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold death sentences that have been issued and, in some cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.