Why The Accused Tree Of Life Synagogue Murderer Still Hasn't Gone To Trial

On October 27, 2018, a gunman shouting racial slurs opened fire in Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, killing 11 worshippers who were there for Saturday morning services, as well as injuring four police officers and two other individuals. The New York Times reported FBI Special Agent Robert Jones called it the "most horrific crime scene" he'd witnessed in his 22 years with the agency.

Police exchanged gunfire with the suspect during the event wounding him, and he was taken into custody at the scene. The shooter was identified as Robert Bowers, 46 at the time. As CNN reported, he was and is believed to be connected to anti-Semitic social media posts, including one posted just minutes before police were notified of the shooting, which read, "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

Four years since the mass shooting, Bowers has still not gone to trial. As WTAE reports, the trial will still not begin for several more months, as it's been tentatively slated to begin in April 2023.

Justice Moves Slowly

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says that all accused criminal defendants have the right to a "speedy trial," although as any criminal lawyer will tell you, the concept is adhered to quite loosely these days in the American criminal justice system. As think-tank Arnold Ventures notes, cases move excruciatingly slowly through the justice system. There's the screening of potential jurors, backlogs of cases in various jurisdictions, and the various machinations that can and often are employed by both the prosecution and the defense: motions, counter-motions, requests for change of venue, and so on.

In July 2020, as CBS News reported at the time, the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing, Bowers' defense team claimed that the pandemic was stifling their ability to develop their case. Further still, as recently as January 2022, the defense has requested a change of venue, arguing that any jury in Pittsburgh would be biased against the defense because of excessive media coverage of the trial there.

Bowers Wants A Plea Deal

As it turns out, the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and the survivors, could get justice with the stroke of a pen if prosecutors would agree to Bowers' request for a plea deal. As CBS News reported in 2019, Bowers is seeking the chance to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison with no possibility of parole, instead of facing the death penalty, which prosecutors want. At the time, federal prosecutors rejected the plea deal, which means that the criminal trial will continue.

At least some survivors of the shooting, as well as family members of the victims, are keen to see prosecutors accept the plea deal. New Light Congregation co-president Stephen Cohen presented a couple of reasons why at least some of his congregation are keen to see this case brought to an end without a trial. "That is way too long a time for closure, which I think is what is important for a congregation and for the families," he said. Later, he added, "The witnesses don't have to testify. There is no trauma attached to being in court and having to relive the events of that day."

Similarly, survivor Judah Samet says that the death penalty would be too good for the accused murderer. Per CBS News Samet said, "I don't want to kill because, to me, it would be a gift to him. He won't suffer."