Trial to begin in 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: Here's everything you need to know

Robert G. Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from Baldwin, Pa., is accused of carrying out the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of the man accused in the 2018 mass shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Robert G. Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from Baldwin, Pa., faces 63 counts stemming from the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

If convicted, he could receive the death penalty.

Here’s everything you need to know about the case before the trial, which is expected to begin next month.

The attack and the victims

First responders aid victims of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
First responders aid victims of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

According to police, Bowers opened fire at the synagogue, which is in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, on Oct. 27, 2018, during the Saturday morning Shabbat service, killing 11 people and wounding six more. The victims included 97-year-old Rose Mallinger; brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal and Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who died while rushing to help other worshippers; Sylvan and Bernice Simon, who’d been married for more than 60 years; as well as Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

Bowers allegedly targeted Tree of Life because of its membership’s support for refugees; his account on the far-right social media website Gab included references to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to refugees in the United States. Bowers’s bio on his Gab account stated, “Jews are the children of satan.”

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers wrote in a Gab post immediately before the shooting. “I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in.”

Bowers injured four policemen and was shot but survived.

The community’s response

A makeshift memorial is seen outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial is seen outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The city of Pittsburgh rallied around the Tree of Life and Squirrel Hill communities in the aftermath of the shooting. Makeshift memorials popped up, and local sports organizations, including the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, honored the victims by wearing a “Stronger Than Hate” patch, with the team logo over the Star of David. Crowd-funding efforts from Muslim groups raised more than a million dollars for the Tree of Life community, while the Sixth Presbyterian Church — where Fred Rogers, a longtime Pittsburgh resident, had served as minister — held a vigil for the victims and allowed the Jewish congregations to gather there.

Local residents protested when then-President Donald Trump visited days after the shooting, circulating a petition asking him to stay away until he renounced white nationalism and stopped targeting minority populations. The petition argued that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and demonization of “globalists,” a word that has been historically associated with anti-Semitism, had inspired violence. On the day of Trump’s visit, hundreds of marchers from all backgrounds joined together and carried signs supporting immigration, including one reading, “We do bridges, not walls” — referring to the three rivers that run through Pittsburgh. When Trump’s motorcade passed, the marchers turned their backs.

‘Light in the darkness’

A uniformed officer walks past the Tree of Life synagogue.
A uniformed officer walks past the Tree of Life synagogue. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Local leaders told Yahoo News that if Bowers intended to divide the community with his attack, he failed.

“I think the community is firmly supportive of refugees and immigrants to come to this country,” Rabbi Jamie Gibson told Yahoo News the day of Trump’s visit. “Squirrel Hill is a marvelous example of a success story, that diversity enriches us all, as opposed to frightening us or making us feel less safe. I actually feel better knowing I can walk down Forbes Avenue at any given moment and hear Chinese or Arabic or French or Japanese or English or Russian. We are intensely curious about each other and each other’s stories for their differences, but even more for their commonality.”

City councilperson Erika Strassburger, who represents the area, said the unity the community experienced after the shooting was “the light in the darkness.”

“It speaks to the relationships that existed, not just in Squirrel Hill but among various religions, among various organizations throughout the city, and there wasn’t a need to build that as soon as the tragedy happened,” Strassburger told Yahoo News at the time. “Those relationships between the Jewish community, the Christian and Catholic community, the Muslim community and many, many others, not just distinguished by their religion, really coming together to support each other.”

The rise in antisemitic violence

A person stands at a memorial outside the synagogue.
A person stands at a memorial outside the synagogue. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)

The Tree of Life shooting was the single deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. According to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitic incidents in the U.S., it was just one of 1,879 attacks targeting Jews and Jewish institutions across the country in 2018. The number of antisemitic incidents reported that year was the third-highest on record since the ADL began tracking such data in the 1970s.

Since then, antisemitism has only continued to become more pervasive, with the ADL reporting record-high numbers of incidents in its annual reports over the last few years. According to the organization’s most recent report, published last month, the ADL recorded a total of 3,697 incidents of antisemitic assault, vandalism and harassment throughout the country during 2022 — nearly double the number of incidents in 2018.

Last year, in response to the rise in violent attacks on religious institutions, the Biden administration announced the creation of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council, a panel of religious leaders and law enforcement experts who will make recommendations to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

What’s next?

Robert Bowers.
Robert Bowers is accused in the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)

On Sunday, Tree of Life congregants held a closing ceremony in the courtyard. The building — which has been vacant since the massacre — is being rebuilt to house a memorial, museum, sanctuary and center dedicated to fighting antisemitism.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville told prospective jurors the trial is expected to start in mid to late May and will last two months.

Bowers had offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors rejected that offer and are seeking the death penalty.

In a court filing last month, lawyers for Bowers said they plan to argue that he has schizophrenia and suffers from structural and functional brain impairments.