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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The man accused of shooting and killing 11 people inside a synagogue in Pittsburgh pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on federal charges on Thursday.

According to the Department of Justice, Robert Bowers, 46, was charged in a 44-count indictment on Wednesday.

The charges are as follows:

  • Eleven counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death
  • Eleven counts of use and discharge of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence
  • Two counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon and resulting in bodily injury
  • Eleven counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence
  • Eight counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer
  • One count of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving use of a dangerous weapon and resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer
robert bowers arraignment sketch Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Suspect Robert Bowers Pleads Not Guilty At Federal Arraignment

(Sketch By Christine Cornell)

Security was high around the federal courthouse Downtown for Thursday’s arraignment.

Bowers was not in a wheelchair for the arraignment like he was on Tuesday during his initial appearance. As he was led into the courtroom, KDKA’s Andy Sheehan described him as appearing “impenitent” and “perhaps somewhat defiant.”

He walked into the courtroom in a red jump suit, hands cuffed and his upper left arm bandaged, and listened impassively as Assistant U.S. Attorney Sue Song read the 44 counts against him related to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Asked by Judge Robert Mitchell if he understood they could result in life imprisonment or death, Bowers showed neither emotion nor remorse as he answered “yes.” But former federal prosecutor Mark Rush says it is far from a foregone conclusion that Bowers will someday be executed.

“Death cases are difficult. Even in cases like this that cry out for capital punishment,” Rush said.

Prosecutors read the counts and the penalties for each. Bowers then pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.

Under the federal system, there is no charge of murder, so Bowers is being prosecuted for committing a hate crime — obstruction of an exercise of religious belief resulting in death.

It can result in the death penalty, but since 1988 only three federal inmates, including Oklahoma City Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh, have been executed, while 75 others still wait on federal death row.

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “Chances are he would never face execution, even if he received the death penalty.”
Rush: “I don’t know if you can reach that conclusion. I think only time will tell, frankly. But, it will be a process, certainly.”

Some argue that if Bowers were tried by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, chances that he would be executed would greater. But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argues that it’s in the national interest to prosecute Bowers federally to protect freedoms to practice religion in safety. Still, eventually the families of the victims will also have a say in whether they want Bowers executed.

“Within the federal system, the victims have clear rights, and I don’t believe this Justice Department will disregard their rights. They’ll consider them,” Rush said.

When the arraignment was over, Bowers left the federal courthouse in a Ford Explorer. He is in the custody of U.S. Marshals.

After the plea of not guilty and the request for a jury trial was granted by Judge Mitchell, there will be a 45-day period to file a pre-trial motion. The case has been assigned to Judge Ambrose, who will then assign a trial date.

On Saturday, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady filed federal hate crimes charges against Bowers. Brady says federal prosecutors are seeking approval to pursue the death penalty against Bowers.

Wednesday’s indictment increases the number of counts from 29 to 44, bolsters the hate crime prosecution and increases the likelihood that Bowers will eventually be executed.

The additional counts relate to Bowers’ assault on police officers, and it also lists a number of special findings that strengthen the case for the death penalty.

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Those findings include the premeditation and planning that went into the attack, the number of victims, and specifically, the defenselessness and vulnerability of those victims. Though not mentioned by name, victims like the Rosenthal brothers and 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, with special needs, were killed at hands of a gunman wielding an AR-15 and three handguns.

The case against Bowers will be prosecuted first in federal court, instead of state courts, because the U.S. Justice Department says it believes it’s in the national interest to protect the constitutional right of freedom of religion.

Bowers is being held in the Butler County Jail without bond.

He faces a maximum possible penalty of death or life without parole, followed by a consecutive sentence of 535 years’ imprisonment.