By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a Pennsylvania man accused of bursting into a Pittsburgh synagogue last year with a semi-automatic rifle and shooting 11 people to death, according to court papers filed on Monday.
Robert Bowers, 46, shouted “all Jews must die” as he fired on congregants gathered for a Sabbath service at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, authorities said.
Bowers has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to a 63-count indictment and is awaiting trial. The charges include using a firearm to commit murder and obstruction of free exercise of religious belief resulting in death, the court filing said.
“Robert Bowers expressed hatred and contempt towards members of the Jewish faith and his animus towards members of the Jewish faith played a role in the killings,” prosecutors said.
The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack ever on Jewish Americans in the United States.
The synagogue is a fixture in Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, which is home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in the United States.
Bowers targeted that location “to maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes and instil fear within the local, national and international Jewish communities,” prosecutors said in court papers.
An attorney for Bowers, death penalty specialist Judy Clarke, did not immediately return calls or an email seeking comment.
Bowers targeted a number of people who were particularly vulnerable because of their advanced age, and he demonstrated a lack of remorse after the mass shooting, federal prosecutors said in court papers.
Among those killed were a 97-year-old woman and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before the gunman, who was armed with an assault-style rifle and three handguns, was shot by police at the synagogue and surrendered.
Bowers, who lived in a Pittsburgh suburb, posted anti-Semitic comments on right-wing social-media websites, including a post on the morning of the shooting in which he decried the work of a U.S. Jewish charity, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The mass shooting followed a rise in the number of hate crimes and the number of hate groups in the United States, according to separate reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to provide additional comment on her office’s decision to seek the death penalty.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)