PITTSBURGH — On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 worshippers were killed in the deadliest attack against Jewish people on American soil.
Robert Bowers is accused in the racially-motivated attack on the synagogue in Squirrel Hill and faces 63 counts. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.
The panel of prospective jurors for the trial of Robert Bowers has been set.
Sixty-nine people make up the pool from which 12 jurors and six alternates will be picked for the man accused of killing 11 people at a Squirrel Hill synagogue.
Final selection will be complete on May 25 and testimony is expected to begin after Memorial Day.
After nearly a month of questioning, a jury pool is set for the case.
The next step is for the defense and federal government to seat or strike the list until there are 12 jurors and six alternates to begin the trial. Each side will have 20 strikes and those are set to happen next Thursday, May 25.
Finding a pool of eligible jurors in the case of Robert Bowers is not an easy task.
“I think there is nothing about this process that is fast and that’s a good thing as the judge is being methodical, logical, reasonable and I think all sides and all parties are trying to minimize any type of appealable issues,” said Phil DiLucente, WPXI Legal Analyst.
DiLucente believes the process is one of the most important for the success of the trial.
The court has said it will start seating jurors once the eligible pool is at 70.
All eyes are on the federal building as questioning continues inside a courtroom in the case of the United States v. Robert Bowers.
“In a case like this where every potential juror has certainly heard or read something about this case,” said Bruce Antkowiak who’s a law professor at St. Vincent College.
It can become complicated in picking a jury. Bowers is accused of shooting and killing 11 worshippers in a synagogue in 2018. Potential jurors have spent nearly two weeks being questioned one on one. While the eligible number of jurors throughout Tuesday is 56, we are now learning the court is looking for 70 before jurors are seated.
“Jurors in the first initial stages of this who were otherwise deemed qualified to be on the juror may have had something happen since that time now would make them unable to serve,” Antkowiak said.
Antkowiak told Channel 11 he believes that’s why the eligible number is much higher than needed as each side gets 20 strikes when jurors are seated. It’s not just hardships, but opinions can change.
“To cast a vote that would truly impact dramatically the life of someone and the life of other people. these questions are weighing heavily on these jurors and for that reason giving them the time to sort through their thoughts is important,” Antkowiak said.
We could see jurors seated as early as next week. As soon as there are 12 jurors and six alternates, the courts will take at least one day off of court before opening arguments begin.
The process for picking a jury for the synagogue shooting trial started out with 1500 questionaries to potential jurors and has dwindled down to the dozens that have come to the federal building in the last two weeks.
It’s not clear the magic number, but with both the defense and federal government getting 20 final strikes each, there will need to be close to 60 eligible jurors. So, what is each looking for?
“Fair, impartial, and someone who if in fact there is a guilty will not hesitate to partake in the sentencing process which may result in the taking of a person’s life,” said Phil DiLucente.
That’s why the majority of the questions asked to the potential jurors surround their thoughts on the death penalty. One woman Friday afternoon believes the death penalty isn’t enough, she told the judge, “Ultimately they are getting an injection and going to sleep. I think it should be harsher. An eye for an eye.” There was a motion to dismiss her.
The process continues to find the final 12 jurors and six alternates who will determine the fate of Robert Bowers.
“When you look at the demographics of the several counties that encompass the Western District it’s not surprising to me it’s taking so long,” DiLucente said.
In court, there were conversations about how long this trial may take. The judge is estimating the guilty phase will be about three weeks followed by another six for the sentencing phase.
Roughly 80 potential jurors have sat in the seat across from the judge inside the federal courthouse this week. It’s a grueling and very detailed process that started on Monday and is far from over.
“This week as we’ve watched the two legal teams really take this on and seat a jury that is fair and impartial. We’ve seen it’s very difficult in a case of capital murder so there’s a lot of burden for the jurors to think deeply on how they feel about criminal justice, how they feel about the death penalty,” said Maggie Feinstein who’s the Director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
The death penalty continues to be the topic of discussion as a vast legal team and a federal judge work to seat a jury in this trial. The man on trial, Robert Bowers, is engaged in the process by taking notes and even passing the paper to his attorneys. He is accused of shooting and killing 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
“It’s so hard. The families and victims are reacting in very different ways. This is jury selection and some of them have chosen to watch and participate, and some have said, ‘This is jury selection, it’s really for the legal teams and this is not something as a victim I need to actively participate in,’ so it’s varied and so different between each individual,” Feinstein said.
As Channel 11′s legal analysts have said, this jury is likely being chosen based on their views on capital punishment. Those being questioned are all over the place.
On Friday afternoon, one potential juror told the judge he believes the death penalty should be illegal and used in very small circumstances. Another said it should only be used in extreme cases and used the Oklahoma bombing as an example of when it is appropriate.
It’s the exact opposite of earlier this week where a large majority of the potential jurors told the judge they were strongly in favor of the death penalty.
It’s clear this will be a long process and Feinstein said the community support will only help as they take each step forward.
“It has felt really stronger than hate. the feeling that we will return in two the sentiments that were so strong after October 27th where the city is reminded of the intensity of this event and also reminded of the intensity of healing together,” Feinstein said.
It’s unclear when decisions will be made on who will actually sit on the jury as there is a growing pool of eligible jurors who were not dismissed by the defense or the government.
A steady stream of potential jurors appeared before Judge Robert Colville, facing more questions from the defense and prosecution about the death penalty.
With the defendant, Robert Bowers, in the courtroom for the second day of jury selection, one potential juror, a woman, told the court she was struggling.
“Every one of us will get judged at some point so it doesn’t really matter what we do here on Earth. That’s why I’m struggling. My religion teaches forgiveness,” she said.
“It’s not something I would come to easily, but given the circumstances of this case with all the evidence out there, I still lean toward the death penalty,” said another man who worked in a psych ward.
Bowers was wearing a blue sweater Tuesday and as he did on day one, he continued to be engaged in the process, taking notes and occasionally speaking with his attorney.
We asked WPXI Legal Analyst Phil DiLucente about the slow, ongoing process.
“It would seem to me that there are probably a tremendous amount of questions from the jurors as it pertains to the death penalty and so that just take time. So, we can easily see this going into one and a half and two and half weeks of jury selection,” said DiLucente.
Before jury selection began this morning, Judge Colville agreed to strike or dismiss eight of the 15 people questioned on Monday.
He denied a motion to dismiss three who were questioned Monday, and there was no mention of four potential jurors who are likely being considered to serve on the jury.
DiLucente said the judge is closely following the book in this case.
“What you don’t want to have is an appeal and so I think everyone’s being extra cautionary to make sure that it’s smooth and effective from a trial from that perspective,” said DiLucente.
Twelve jurors and six alternates are needed to hear the case. Jury selection may take at least a couple of weeks.
The court sent out 1500 notices to potential jurors and 20 per day are being brought in for questioning.
Channel 11′s Rick Earle was the first local reporter in the main courtroom.
Seven prospective jurors were brought in in the first group and they sat down individually.
Bowers sat at a table, occasionally writing comments and speaking with his attorney Michael Navaro.
One of the victims and family members of some of the victims were in the courtroom as the judge and members of the prosecution and defense questioned jurors about their backgrounds, what they know about the synagogue shooting and their thoughts and feelings about the death penalty.
Family members of the victims, along with one of the victims, Dan Leger, sat in the back of the courtroom monitoring the proceedings.
The first day of selections wrapped up just before 5:30 p.m. Monday. In total, seven potential jurors were questioned in the morning and nine were questioned after the lunch break. 11 News is still waiting to see how many potential jurors have been dismissed.
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