The Tree of Life


44 charges, 32 counts punishable by death.

That’s what the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter faces in federal court. Robert Bowers entered pleas of not guilty to those charges the same day the last of the 11 victims, ages 54 to 97, were laid to rest. Among them were brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were said to never miss services, who were always together, and who both were developmentally disabled. Cecil was described, in the wake of his death as having a laugh that “was infectious.”

These victims’ stories were being told as details of the killer, and his motives, were also being revealed. Bowers, who posted anti-Semitic messages online, seemed to have been especially angered by the Jewish non-profit organization, HIAS, that had ties to the Tree of Life Synagogue, and that helps refugees around the world. That this spurred Bowers to commit murder at a time when refugees have been featured in speeches by politicians and so-called “caravans” have been in the news is seemingly not coincidental. That it is associated with Judaism is also not without historical roots.

Judaism forbids the oppression of the stranger. When some suggested that the synagogue should have been locked, and guarded by armed security, it was an image that is antithetical to Judaism. Leviticus 19:34 commands, “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 22:21, “And you shall not wrong a stranger, neither shall you oppress them; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

That these murders are a hate crime seem clear. Of course, all murders are rooted in hatred, but the federal definition of Hate Crime Acts is that the offense involved actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin (18 U.S.C. Code 249). That would expose Bowers to the federal death penalty, which is rarely utilized. The last federal executions were in the 1990s.

From a religious perspective, since religion is at the center of this crime, the Torah, or written Jewish law, prescribes death as punishment for a number of sins, including murder. But, in practice, death sentences were rarely carried out by Jewish courts. Whether the wishes of the victims’ families, and their religious beliefs, are a factor in whether the death penalty is the ultimate penalty, remains to be seen.  But what is clear is that incidents of anti-Jewish attacks have been on the rise, with almost half of religious hate crimes in America in 2016 targeting Jews, and in 2017, there was a surge of anti-Semitic attacks (The Atlantic, “The Synagogue Killings Mark a Surge of Anti-Semitism”, by Andrew Kraige, Oct. 27, 2018).

Whatever justice looks like in this case, a trial, should there be one, would elicit heartbreaking testimony. The obituaries of the victims give a preview of what might be heard in a federal courtroom in Western Pennsylvania. One can already hear the description of Cecil and David, echoing the obituary in The Pittsburgh Tribune, “They loved life. They loved their community. … Together, they looked after one another. They were inseparable. Most of all they were kind, good people with a strong faith and respect for everyone around.” (Pittsburgh Tribune, by Rob Amen and Aaron Aupperlee, Oct. 28, 2018).


Janet Johnson is a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville who practices in state and federal courts. White collar crimes, including fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion, are among her areas of expertise. She is rated AV Preeminent on attorney rating website Martindale-Hubbell and has been named to the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys’ Top 10 Best Attorneys list. Johnson is also a legal analyst for CNN and HLN.


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