PITTSBURGH -- Lawyers for the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue say the FBI has been discouraging witnesses from talking to the defense, undermining the suspect's right to a fair trial.
Robert Bowers' lawyers said in court documents that at least one witness got in touch with the defense — exchanging multiple emails over several weeks — but abruptly canceled a planned meeting after the FBI frowned on it.
The defense said the FBI delivered the same message to other witnesses.
"The FBI may have included some ... acknowledgment of the witnesses' right to talk to the defense, while at the same time ensuring that no witness would actually exercise that right by conveying the misleading message that doing so could compromise the government's case," Bowers' lawyers wrote.
The defense asked a judge to tell the FBI to stop its "improper interference" in the case. Defense lawyers are also demanding that the government turn over any documents that concern witnesses' potential communication with the defense, and a list of witnesses with whom the FBI has spoken about talking to Bowers' lawyers.
"It is well-established that witnesses belong neither to the defense nor to the prosecution and that both parties must have equal access to witnesses before trial," defense lawyers wrote.
U.S. Senior District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose on Thursday ordered federal prosecutors to respond to the defense allegation by next week. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.
Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons during worship services inside Tree of Life synagogue, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, according to state and federal affidavits.
He expressed hatred of Jews during the Oct. 27 rampage and later told police that "all these Jews need to die," authorities said. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Bowers, who faces a 63-count indictment that charges him with hate crimes, obstructing religious belief and using a firearm during crimes of violence, has pleaded not guilty.
The defense filing did not name the witnesses whom the FBI allegedly instructed not to speak with Bowers' lawyers. The defense plans to file a separate document under seal that will provide more specifics about the allegation.
Bowers' lawyers identified "potential victim impact witnesses" as being among the witnesses whom the FBI might have discouraged from talking to the defense. They noted that Department of Justice protocol is to seek the views of the victims' family on a potential death penalty prosecution. Prosecutors have not made a final decision on whether to seek capital punishment.