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Jury in Pittsburgh to begin sentencing phase in the synagogue shooting trial


Jurors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial hear arguments today over the death penalty for Robert Bowers. He killed 11 worshippers in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. WESA's Oliver Morrison reports.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: A majority of the families who lost loved ones say they think Bowers deserves the death penalty. Michele Rosenthal lost her two brothers, David and Cecil, in the attack, and right before the trial started, she decided to make her stance clear again.


MICHELE ROSENTHAL: Our family has suffered long and hard over the last 4 1/2 years. We don't want to have to continue to defend ourselves and our position. We want justice.

MORRISON: But one of the three congregations that worshipped at the Tree of Life was Dor Hadash. And that congregation sent a letter to the attorney general in 2019 requesting a life sentence. The letter said that the Dor Hadash congregant who was killed in the attack, Jerry Rabinowitz, was quote, "firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty."

David Harris is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has worked to help educate Pittsburghers about legal issues in the trial. And he says some Jewish community members want Bowers to receive the death penalty because inmates on death row have little ability to communicate with the outside world.

DAVID HARRIS: The idea was that they could do as much as possible to cut this guy off from the world, not have him be able to communicate with or inspire anybody else beyond the horrible acts he's already done.

MORRISON: Rabbi Mark Goodman is an associate rabbi at the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and he says disagreement about the death penalty may seem like division to an outsider. But canonical Jewish texts are structured around arguments and disagreements, which can lead to different interpretations. In the Catholic religion, by contrast, he says, when the pope makes a pronouncement, followers are supposed to listen. That doesn't work for Jews, Goodman says.

MARK GOODMAN: For a lot of us in the Jewish community, when you see a rabbi make a pronouncement like it's authoritative and it's the only opinion, most of the rest of us look at that person like, dude, what's up with that guy?

MORRISON: Goodman says his congregants are talking about the trial, but they aren't seeking rabbinical advice.

GOODMAN: A lot of people here have an emotional anger, rage, frustration, deep sadness about the shooting, and they may feel that the person should be put to death. And then they don't necessarily feel great about the idea that Jewish law may come against those feelings.

MORRISON: Rabbi Danny Schiff is in charge of adult learning for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. And Schiff says the Torah is very clear in stating that capital punishment is allowed, but rabbinical scholars made clear in the Talmud that even one execution every 70 years might be too frequent.

DANNY SCHIFF: It's something that our tradition seems to want to be available but exceedingly rare.

MORRISON: Daniel Feldman is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. And he says when it's all said and done, the community and legal response to the killings may be more indicative of the place of Jews in America than the hate implied by the crime itself. The attack brought ordinary Pittsburghers into solidarity with the Jewish people, he says, and brought Jewish people together regardless of their different views.

DANIEL FELDMAN: It's an overwhelming feeling to think to myself, finally, we're living in a time where this is possible, and what that means - you know, what my grandparents or my great-grandparents would have thought to see this.

MORRISON: Feldman says history is replete with examples of Jewish people being attacked without receiving justice. So regardless of the sentence Bowers ultimately receives, his conviction feels momentous.

For NPR News, I'm Oliver Morrison in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Oliver Morrison