Synagogue shooting suspect appears in court as Pittsburgh prepares for Trump's visit

The gunman accused of ...

Posted: Oct 30, 2018 11:20 AM
Updated: Oct 30, 2018 11:20 AM

The gunman accused of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday may face the death penalty, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.

The US attorney based in Pittsburgh has begun the process of seeking the death penalty for Robert Bowers, who made his first appearance in court Monday.

2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack

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The attorney general must ultimately give the OK to pursue the death penalty for the alleged gunman, the Justice Department said. On Monday, Sessions labeled the assault a "murderous rampage."

"He'll be subjected to the death penalty perhaps," the attorney general said in an address in Boston.

"This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith," he said. "It was attack on all people of faith, and it was an attack on America's values of protecting those of faith. It cannot, it will not, be tolerated."

Suspect appears in court

Bowers is accused of killing 11 people and injuring at least six more at Tree of Life synagogue -- the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history, according to the Anti-Defamation League. He faces charges in state and federal court.

In Monday's brief federal court hearing, Bowers spoke only to answer questions from the judge. He wore a blue shirt and handcuffs, which US marshals removed so he could sign paperwork.

Two public defenders appeared with Bowers in court Monday, but counsel who will handle his case going forward has yet to be appointed. He is being held without bond, and is expected back in court for a preliminary hearing Thursday morning.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he believed the case calls for the federal death penalty. Shapiro said his office is looking into whether Bowers and others used the social media platform Gab to incite violence, based on evidence that Bowers frequently posted anti-Semitic comments on the site.

"There's a difference between heinous bigotry, and a platform being used to incite violence in our community," Shapiro told CNN. "I'm not saying for certain that is what's occurring. I'm saying that's something that we're interested in looking at."

Bowers used anti-Semitic slurs, complained that President Donald Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish people,and blamed Jews for helping migrant caravans in Central America. Minutes before allegedly storming inside the building, he logged onto Gab again and wrote to his followers.

"I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered," he wrote. "Screw your optics, I'm going in."

Gab denied supporting violence and said its mission is "to defend free expression and individual liberty online." The company said it has been taken down by hosting providers, app stores and payment processors since the shooting. It blamed a smear campaign by the mainstream media, and said it will be up again once it transitions to a new hosting provider.

A community in shock

The shooting struck the heart of historically Jewish Squirrel Hill and spurred sadness as the victims' identities were revealed. President Donald Trump condemned the violence and ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.

"It's hard to understand how significant these losses are to our community unless you understand the significance and intimacy of Squirrel Hill," said Tree of Life congregant Jesse Rabner.

"The community is knit so tight that one life affects thousands. It's a norm to be Jewish in Squirrel Hill, and it's a loving and peaceful community."

All corners of the Pittsburgh region mourned, including the city's sports teams and athletes. The Pittsburgh Steelers observed a moment of silence on Sunday before their game against the Cleveland Browns.

On Monday, Pittsburgh public schools held a moment of silence as students headed back to class and offered counseling services to students and employees. "As always, our School Police works closely with the City of Pittsburgh Police to ensure an appropriate presence throughout the District," said the district said on its website.

Mayor expresses concern over President's visit

The massacre capped a week of traumatic events with common roots in hate. The massacre stoked debate over a possible connection between President Trump's criticism of his detractors, including Democrats, the media and prominent members of the American Jewish community, and the recent acts of domestic violence.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders rejected any such ties and suggested the media could improve the tone of discourse by highlighting the President's positive actions.

President Trump was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh this week as funerals begin. But the city's Democratic mayor expressed concern that the visit might detract from the funerals.

"We did try to get the message out to the White House that our priority tomorrow is the first funeral," Mayor Bill Peduto told Anderson Cooper.

"I do believe that it would be best to put the attention on the families this week and, if he were to visit, choose a different time to be able to do it. Our focus as a city will be on the families and the outreach they will need this week and the support they'll need to get through it."

The state's Democratic attorney general said he hopes the President brings "words of healing" to Pennsylania" and "speaks with moral clarity."

"The President has a unique responsibility to rise above the noise and bring down the temperature of our rhetoric, and help our community begin to heal. That's what I want to see from our President," he said. "Sadly he seems to miss the mark every time he opens up his mouth or engages his Twitter feed."

A survivor recounts the shooting

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers with Tree of Life said this week's focus will be on celebrating the lives of the victims, starting with funerals on Tuesday for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal.

"It's not a day to show anger, it's not a day to show bitterness, it's a day to celebrate the lives of two wonderful, decent human beings," he told CNN.

Rabbi Myers was in the building when the gunshots rang out.

"I instructed my congregants to drop to the floor, do not utter a sound and do not move," he said.

He thought the solid oak pews might offer some protection to congregants as he tried to usher some to safety or find a place for them to hide.

"I turned back to see if I could help the remaining people in the back of my congregation. At that time I could hear the gunfire getting louder. It was no longer safe to be there. I had to leave them."

He pledged to rebuild the synagogue so it returns "stronger and better than ever."

Officers leave hospital

The suspect was taken into custody after a shootout with police and treated in a hospital. He was released Monday morning.

Four law enforcement officers were injured in the shootout; two had been released from the hospital as of Monday.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said SWAT officers forced the suspect to surrender while saving the life of a wounded team member.

"As they were doing this, they were also taking care of the officers that were injured. Credit to the team -- they were able to apply a tourniquet to one of the officers, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, saving his life," he said.

"What's really special to us are the amount of letters and cards we're getting from the community, especially from children who are just thanking our officers for what they do," he said. "That means a lot with what we're going through now to see that and to see that the community is concerned about us just as much as we're concerned about them."

Investigators are in touch with police in Dormont, a borough in Allegheny County, about prior incidents involving Bowers, a person familiar with the investigation said.

Dormont Police Chief Michael Bisignani said there were mostly minor incidents from 1993 to 2004, including a traffic citation. Bowers was interviewed as a witness in a burglary case in 1996 and there was another incident in 2004 that police can't discuss because of the HIPAA privacy law.

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