Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s childhood, past detailed in Monday’s testimony

PITTSBURGH — The defense has started testimony in the final phase of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial.

The jury has decided that Robert Bowers, who killed 11 worshippers in a Squirrel Hill synagogue in 2018, is eligible for the death penalty.

In the final phase of the trial, family members and survivors had the opportunity to speak for the first time about their loss and grief.

The judge anticipates about two to three weeks before the jury makes its final decision on whether Bowers will be sentenced to life in prison or death.

>>> Tree of Life, community react to guilty verdict in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

The first witness for the defense was Dr. Katherine Porterfield, who testified that Bowers showed signs of early, serious mental illness and emotional problems and that he did not get the care and intervention he needed and his mental health deteriorated over the course of his life.

“They had a lot of problems in their family and could not mobilize to help him and that really goes back to his childhood,” Porterfield said. “It really begins in childhood for him.”

Porterfield went into detail regarding her interviews with Barbara Bolt, who is Bowers’ mother.

During Porterfield’s testimony, she said Bolt remembered a life of being profoundly unhappy always, telling her: “When I was growing up my parents made me feel so bad. I remember thinking I won’t do that to my child, but I didn’t know how. "

Bolt told Porterfield that she felt that she was incapable of parenting and that she was profoundly ashamed of that.

“I cut myself in front of Rob. At least you’ll know why you’re messed up. I would cut my legs, arm, abdomen. It was almost comforting to feel pain,” Porterfield testified that Bolt told her.

At one point, Barbara Bolt blamed herself for Bowers’ anger. She said that she didn’t respond the best way because she was too self-centered.

Bolt reportedly told Porterfield, “I should do half of the sentence. He was provoked into things.”

Bowers’ relationship with his mother, specifically when he was a child and pre-teen, was also a key theme during Monday’s testimony.

A retired psychiatrist, Dr. Earl Brink, testified about Barbara taking Bowers to the hospital. Brink, who treated a then 13-year-old Bowers, reviewed his notes from 1985.

He read “13-year-old white male who was admitted for violent behavior at home. Apparently, his mother was yelling at home for little things and became upset and was missing lighter fluid and according to the mother was going to burn her with lighter fluid.”

Bowers’ defense team also called Naomi Grimm, who is cousins with Bowers’ mother. Grimm talked about the family being poor and severely dysfunctional.

“Because of the way we were raised, we all have a certain amount of mental issues. We are a reflection of that abuse,” Grimm testified.

Bowers’ 5th-grade teacher testified about his time at the Faith Community Christian School where Bowers attended.

Dennis Kavanaugh said he recalls a young Robert Bowers, who had a visibly anxious moment during a timed math exercise.

“Robert was shaking and shouting out something. I remember having to stop the whole class and calm everybody down, especially him.”

Bowers’ former classmate also testified about an incident at recess when he allowed Bowers to see his new Star Wars fighter toy.

“Robert asked to see it and then immediately went to throw it on the ground like it was a flying toy. It wasn’t, and it smashed on the ground. When the teacher confronted Robert about it, [Bowers] he had no emotions regarding what he’d done,” said former grade school classmate, Jace Wingard.

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