Pittsburgh synagogue shooter sentenced to death, families open up about 'relief'

Robert Bowers was convicted of killing 11 people in the 2018 mass shooting.

August 3, 2023, 1:00 PM

The man who gunned down 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history has been sentenced to death, capping one of the "darkest chapters" in the city's history and bringing relief to the families of the anguished victims.

The judge formally sentenced Robert Bowers to death on Thursday following victim impact statements.

Peg Durachko, whose husband, 65-year-old Richard Gottfried, was killed, said to Bowers in court Thursday, "Your callous disregard for the person he was repulses me."

"Your hateful act took my soulmate," she said, according to Pittsburgh ABC affiliate WTAE.

Wednesday's verdict came on the second day of deliberations. All 12 jurors had to agree to impose the death penalty, otherwise, he would have been sentenced to life in prison.

In this Oct. 29, 2018 file photo a makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

Leigh Stein, whose father, 71-year-old Daniel Stein, was killed in the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, said at a news conference Wednesday, "A piece of my heart will forever be gone," but now "finally justice has been served."

"I feel like a weight has been lifted," Stein said.

Many families commended the jurors who sat through grueling, graphic testimony.

Howard Fienberg, whose mother, 75-year-old Joyce Fienberg, was killed, said, "The jury sat through months of horror and delivered justice to my mom and everyone that was killed and everyone that was injured and beyond."

He said the verdict brings him "relief."

Howard Fienberg speaks to the media surrounded by victims and families of victims following the sentencing of Robert Bowers at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, Aug 2, 2023.
Rebecca Droke/AP

The family of 97-year-old victim Rose Mallinger said in a statement, "Although we will never attain closure from the loss of our beloved Rose Mallinger, we now feel a measure of justice has been served."

"Returning a sentence of death is not a decision that comes easy, but we must hold accountable those who wish to commit such terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence," the family said. "May we always remember those who were taken too soon -- Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Daniel Stein, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Irving Younger, Melvin Wax, and Rose Mallinger. May their memories be for a blessing."

PHOTO: In this combo image made from photos provided by the United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania are the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In this combo image made from photos provided by the United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania are the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. From left, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, and David Rosenthal; bottom row, from left, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger. Robert Bowers, a truck driver who shot and killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the nation's deadliest attack on Jewish people, was found guilty, June 16, 2023.
United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania via AP, FILE

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the massacre, said in a statement, "In the years we have spent waiting for this trial to take place, many of us have been stuck in neutral. It was a challenge to move forward with the looming specter of a murder trial."

"Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence, it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward," Myers said. "I have my faith, bolstered by the embrace and respect with which my community has been treated by our government and our fellow citizens. For this and the seriousness with which the jury took its duty, I remain forever grateful."

Bowers had offered to plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table, but prosecutors turned him down.

Bowers was convicted in June on all 63 charges against him, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

Bowers "killed half of the people in that building. He murdered them because they were Jewish," Eric Olshan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, told reporters on Wednesday.

A member of the police crosses the street on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

"He also shot two other congregants and he tried to kill every other person in that building," including the first responders, Olshan said. Four police officers were shot and injured in the attack.

"Nothing has been the same" since that day, Olshan said. "Not for the families who lost beloved family members and not for those who survived but bare the scars, physical and emotional."

Bowers "acted because of white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views that unfortunately are not original or unique to him," Olshan said. "Sadly, they are too common."

"When people who espouse white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views pick up weapons and use them to kill or to try to kill people because of their faith, our office and our partners ... will hold them accountable," he said.

Police tape wrapped around a traffic light pole out front of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill outside of Pittsburgh.
Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Christopher Giordano, assistant special agent in charge for the FBI in Pittsburgh, called the verdict the "end of one of the darkest chapters" in Pittsburgh history.

To the victims' families, he said, "I hope today allows you to close this terrible chapter and continue moving forward and continue healing."

The Pittsburgh massacre was "not the first attack at a house of worship and it hasn't been the last," Giordano continued.

"Hate has no place in our community. We will stop at nothing to keep our community safe," he said.

This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, FILE

Martin Gaynor, who survived the massacre, said, "Thank God I survived and I'm alive and I'm here to see this day."

Despite the verdict, "antisemitism is rising, including the spread and promotion of hate on social media," he said. "I and all of the survivors and all of the family members of the victims ... know where this leads."

Gaynor said this verdict helps send a signal that "antisemitism and hate have no place in our hearts, no place in our communities, no place in our country and will not be tolerated."

On July 13, the jury decided Bowers and the crime met the criteria to be eligible for the death penalty. That led to the final phase of the trial, which included testimony from victims' families.

"My world has fallen apart," Sharyn Stein, wife of Daniel Stein, said on the stand, according to WTAE. "We were together for 46 years and a part of me is not there now."

Clinical psychologist Dr. Katherine Porterfield testified in Bowers' defense. She said in a report that the gunman "had multiple, severe, chronic traumatic life events and circumstances that put him at risk for serious mental illness," WTAE reported.

Defense attorney Judy Clarke in her closing argument highlighted Bowers' mental illness and "chaotic, unstable and unsafe" childhood, WTAE reported.

"There is no justification for the crimes that he committed," Clarke said, but she asked the jury to sentence him to life in prison.

Andrea Wedner, who survived the shooting that killed her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, said in court that she thought of her family as she tried to stay conscious.

"You cannot imagine the terror I experienced that day," Wedner told the judge, according to WTAE. "I saw my arm blown open and my life blown apart."

She added, "This evil person must be completely isolated from the outside world ... with no means of accessing news media."