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Judge rules Tree of Life death penalty sentencing would occur in 2 phases

Megan Guza, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in News & Features

PITTSBURGH — If Robert Bowers is found guilty later this year of killing 11 worshipers inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue in 2018, his sentencing will be broken into two separate phases, a judge ruled this week.

The trial for Bowers, accused in the Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at the synagogue where three congregations — Tree of Life or L'Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light — were holding Shabbat services, is set to begin in April.

Eleven were killed in the shooting: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. Two other worshipers and several police officers were injured.

Bowers' defense team had sought to split the sentencing phase of the trial — if there is a sentencing phase — into two distinct segments, which would ultimately make the federal case against Bowers a three-part trial.

The trial itself will take place, after which a jury will decide upon Bowers' guilt. If he is found guilty, there will be two parts to the sentencing phase. In the first, jurors will consider whether federal prosecutors have proved that Bowers is eligible for the death penalty, which the government is seeking. In the second, jurors will decide upon a sentence for Bowers.

Most notably, the decision by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville means that, if there is a sentencing phase, jurors won't hear victim-impact statements until after they've decided if Bowers is eligible for the death penalty.

Defense attorneys had sought this split sentencing, nothing that otherwise "the jury will hear the highly emotional and prejudicial victim impact evidence in the same proceeding in which they consider whether the elements of a federal capital crime have been proven."


In short, defense counsel feared jurors would be unduly swayed to decide Bowers was eligible for the death penalty if they heard the victim impact statements before making that decision.

Federal prosecutors, in expressing opposition to splitting the sentencing phase, noted that the law does not require such a distinction. Plus, they noted, separating the sentencing phases "would unduly complicate the penalty phase, introduce significant risk of jury confusion and run counter to the court's interest in judicial economy."

Judge Colville ultimately agreed with the defense, ruling sentencing will be broken into two parts "in an abundance of caution."

He noted that while the court is not required to split the sentencing phase, it has the discretion to do so.

"(While) the court is not unsympathetic to the government's concerns over unnecessary protraction and complication of the proceedings, hardship to witnesses and delay for victims," Judge Colville wrote, "the court must also consider and safeguard the fairness of the proceedings in this matter and prevent any potential unfair prejudice to the parties."

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