PITTSBURGH (AP/KDKA) — A truck driver accused of killing 11 people and wounding seven during the attack on Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October pleaded not guilty during his arraignment Monday morning on additional charges.
The hearing in federal court for 46-year-old Robert Bowers was short, lasting no more than 15 minutes.
Three unmarked SUVs brought Bowers into the federal courthouse ahead of the hearing. He arrived in a red jumpsuit with his ankles and wrists shackled, no longer needing the help of a wheelchair.
Once inside the courtroom, prosecutors read aloud the new charges listed in the superseding indictment. The indictment outlines 19 additional counts to be added to the 44 counts he was already facing. The new counts are hate crime and gun-related charges.
— MEGHAN SCHILLER (@MeghanKDKA) February 11, 2019
Bowers took his seat at the defense table, saying “not guilty” when U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Mitchell asked him how he would plead to additional hate crime counts.
But just as quickly his attorney, Judy Clarke, rose, indicating the defense would like to plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, stating: “We are hopeful of a resolution of this matter without a trial.”
In leaving the courthouse, Clarke said not a word.
In defending infamous mass killers like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Clarke — an anti-death penalty advocate — has often conceded guilt in trying to bargain for their lives. Though in a statement, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady implied there would be no deal to avoid execution.
“The defendant is charged with crimes that carry the maximum possible penalty of death. We are committed to seeking justice for the victims and their families in this case,” he said.
In the coming weeks, Clarke will try to find reasons that Bowers should not die at the hands of the state, but former assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Rush believes that won’t sway federal prosecutors.
“It’s hard to imagine what possible facts she could bring to light in this fact pattern that would any way mitigate them seeking the death penalty for these horrific acts,” he said.
Watch Meghan Schiller’s report —
Two members from the Dor Hadash congregation, which is part of the Tree of Life Synagogue, were present at the hearing. They said they wanted to stand strong and represent the congregation.
“We have to be present, and strong, and not afraid, and make ourselves be known as human beings, all of us in this process, that’s all I know,” said Donna Coufal, one of the Dor Hadash congregants.
“We were there to stand as witnesses on behalf of those of our friends and family who were unable to be there, and to establish the congregation, Dor Hadash, will not be defined by this incident and we will continue as a vital and vibrant congregation,” added Jon Pushinsky, the other congregant. “One thing that shocked me the first time I was here was that I expected to look into the face of evil and what I saw was a non entity.”
Coufal declined to weigh in on whether Bowers should face the death penalty.
“I do not have thoughts about that. I want to see justice served correctly, which I believe is happening,” she said.
#Breaking: 2 members from the Dor Hadash congregation came out to this morning’s hearing to stand strong and represent the congregation. “We have to present, strong and not afraid and make ourselves be know.” @KDKA pic.twitter.com/1zub71cFPy
— MEGHAN SCHILLER (@MeghanKDKA) February 11, 2019
A grand jury last month added the 19 counts to the 44 Bowers had been facing over the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue building.
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The new charges include hate crime violations, obstructing religious belief and using a firearm during crimes of violence.
The indictment added 13 violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, along with counts of discharging a firearm during those crimes of violence.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the new charges include:
• Eleven counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death;
• Eleven counts of hate crimes resulting in death;
• 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;
• Two counts of hate crimes involving an attempt to kill;
• 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 public safety officers;
• Four counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving use of a dangerous weapon and resulting in bodily injury to public safety officers;
• Twenty-five counts of discharge of a firearm during these crimes of violence.
The arraignment is scheduled for 9 a.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell.
Bowers next court date is set for April 17 for pre-trial motions. A trial date has not yet been set.
At this time, the government has not said whether or not it will pursue the death penalty in this case. It should be noted, that Bowers’ new defense attorney has a track record of sparing her previous clients from the death penalty.
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