Three years have passed since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. As this happens, survivors plan now-familiar annual rituals of rememberance. The criminal case involving the suspect continues, and the site is on the verge of restoration.
Although the landmark synagogue is still in place in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a well-known architect is working to transform it. This site was where 11 people were murdered in America’s worst antisemitic attack.
Robert G. Bowers, the suspect, is not scheduled for trial. There is no indication that the U.S. Justice Department will listen to the pleas of members of the targeted congregations and accept a guilty plea with a life sentence.
Members of the three congregations that held Sabbath services during the attack on Oct. 27, 2018 will be joined by supporters in quiet tribute. They will gather for community-service projects, and study the Torah.
On Wednesday, three years after the shooting, they will gather outdoors to commemorate the victims at Schenley Park. There are 11 trees there that were planted to honor them.
Maggie Feinstein, the director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership which was created to assist those who were affected by hate crimes and synagogue shootings, said that “people are having a really hard time in this COVID age.” This year’s goal was to “come together safe.” It has been a long journey of not being in a position to achieve that goal.
Bowers’ lawyers were joined by federal prosecutors in a Pittsburgh courtroom to discuss whether any incriminating statements made on the spot can be used against him.
Some members of the Tree of Life and Dor Hadash congregations feel that their grief was exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic which further isolated them from each other and in-person worship.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life survived the attack and said that the dual traumas left his congregants in various stages of recovery.
He said, “There are those who claim they’re healed.” “If this is the case, I thank God. I can only speak for myself and say that I will always be healed.
Bowers’ federal capital murder case against him, a former truck driver, has been delayed and hampered by logistical issues. His statements on the day and a trail of online postings suggest that he was consumed with hatred for Jewish people at the time he launched the attack, according to authorities.
Bowers, 49, avoided making public statements behind bars because his team of lawyers fought to stop him being executed. They even offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
Donetta Ambrose, U.S. District Judge, has sealed around 100 of the 600 docket entries in this case. This restricts the information that the public can access about the proceedings. Stephen R. Kaufman (acting U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh) declined to comment on this article. Bowers’ legal team also did not respond.
Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns and is accused of shooting 18 people. He also traded gunfire with officers and was shot three times before being taken into custody by the police. Bowers’ social media posts included false conspiracy theories about the Holocaust and disapproval for a non-profit Jewish group that assists refugees.
Ambrose was told by Bowers’ lawyers in 2019 that the case “would already be over — with interests in a quick resolution vindicated — if the government had accepted the defendant’s offer to plead guilty and be sentenced for life in prison, without the possibility of parole.”
The Justice Department pursued the executions as a death penalty case under the then-President Donald Trump. In July, Attorney General Merrick Grland announced a moratorium for federal executions while his agency reviewed policies and procedures. This added to the uncertainty. It is still being treated as a capital case by the prosecution, but it remains to be seen what Bowers’ fate would be if convicted.
The defense and prosecutors have fought over evidence, search warrants, court procedures and the impact of the pandemic on Bowers right to a fair trial. While the defense team insists on safe conditions and expresses concern about travel risks, the U.S. Attorney’s Office complains about delay tactics.
Former U.S. Attorney in Harrisburg Dave Freed called three years an uncharacteristically long time between arrest and trial in any criminal case. However, Freed said that the intense public interest in Harrisburg’s synagogue shooting and potential death penalty put additional pressure on lawyers to do it right.
Freed said, “I think you need to add COVID mix — I’m certain it’s contributed,” but he did not play a role during the Tree of Life case.
Some members of the three churches want the Justice Department take the deal that would save Bowers’s life.
As a congregation, Dor Hadash has asked Garland to stop seeking the death penalty. A potential death sentence is also opposed by New Light members.
Author Beth Kissileff opposed the death penalty for religious reasons and because a plea would save survivors from the trauma of a trial. Jonathan Perlman, a New Light Rabbi, was her husband who survived the shooting.
She wrote, “As mad as I am that our friends and congregants’ lives were brutally ended,” in The Forward, a Jewish news site.
Kissileff stated that President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to support legislation to eliminate the federal death penalty, and to provide incentives for states to do so, is encouraging. Garland’s moratorium is also encouraging to her.
The survivors said they are aware that capital cases can take a while and that the pandemic made it take longer. But they want to move on.
Carol Black, who survived the attack hiding in a storage room, said that she wanted to “move on with our lives” and that they would like to end this episode.
Survivors are also increasing their efforts to fight violent extremism. The three-day Eradicate hate Global Summit was held in Pittsburgh this week. It featured experts as well as survivors and family members of victims.
The Tree of Life Congregation has selected Daniel Libeskind as the architect to remodel the synagogue complex. He is also the master planner responsible for New York’s reconstruction of the World Trade Center. It is intended to be both a memorial and a place for regular activity.
Myers stated, “We are all excited about what the premier architect of our generation could create at Tree of Life.”