After sentencing, Pgh synagogue shooter will fade from the public eye. Here’s why

Whatever sentence he gets, survivors say they want to make sure the message of hate stops with him

By: - Sunday July 16, 2023 6:35 am

After sentencing, Pgh synagogue shooter will fade from the public eye. Here’s why

Whatever sentence he gets, survivors say they want to make sure the message of hate stops with him

By: - 6:35 am

A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh (Capital-Star photo).

A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh (Capital-Star photo).

PITTSBURGH — On June 16, a jury in Pittsburgh convicted the man accused of killing 11 people at a synagogue in 2018 on all 63 federal charges against him. The jury is now deliberating in the penalty phase of the trial, to determine if the gunman should be executed; after finding in a verdict announced on Thursday that he is eligible for the death penalty.

But whatever sentence the synagogue gunman gets, his time behind bars will likely involve limited communication with the outside world. 

The families of the victims and the survivors of the 2018 shooting have not spoken publicly since the trial began. And to be sure, they don’t need to justify or explain their feelings about the case or the trial to anyone. 

In the months leading up to the trial in U.S. District court here – and even before – while federal prosecutors were deciding how to proceed, there were differences of opinion among the families and in the faith community about whether the gunman should be sentenced to life in prison, or death. 

In August 2019 Congregation Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations in the Tree of Life synagogue released a statement that it was “saddened and disappointed” that then-Attorney General Bill Bar planned to try the gunman and seek the death penalty. 

The statement said a plea bargain for life without parole “would have honored the memory of Dor Hadash congregant Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who was firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty,” and would have prevented the publicity and attention that a trial would draw. 

“We continue to mourn with our fellow congregants and community members who have lost loved ones and survived unspeakable terror,” the statement reads. “Only through our shared humanity can there be an end to hatred and violence.”

That same month, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation, another of the three housed in the Tree of Life during the attack, also wrote to Barr urging him not to seek the death penalty. 

“The U.S. Justice Department has not implemented the death penalty in 18 years,” Perlman wrote. “Both our religious traditions, yours Catholic and mine Jewish, vigorously oppose the death penalty,” he added.

Instead, Perlman argued, the gunman should have to live with what he did on October 27, 2018, when he entered the synagogue with an assault-style rifle and gunned down 11 people.

“I would like the Pittsburgh killer to be incarcerated for the rest of his life without parole. He should meditate on whether taking action on some white supremacist fantasy against the Jewish people was really worth it,” Perlman wrote. “Let him live with it forever. I am mainly interested in not letting this thug cause my community any further pain.” 

He added that a drawn-out death penalty trial would be a “disaster,” giving fresh trauma to the families and victims and attention to the gunman. 

But in a July 2021 letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, family members of nine of the victims — Bernice and Sylvan Simon, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Daniel Stein, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Joyce Fienberg and Melvin Wax — urged him to “keep in place the death penalty qualification of this capital murder case,” as determined by the Department of Justice under Barr. 

“The vast majority of immediate victim-family members were united and solidly in support of death penalty qualification,” the letter to Garland reads, adding that had not changed for that vast majority, and that they did not support any plea-bargain arrangement. 

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter found guilty on dozens of charges

“Proper justice is not about seeking revenge or retribution. Our great losses can never be repaired or remedied,” the letter reads. “Anything other than [the] death penalty qualification in this Capital Murder case would be a grave injustice as well as a disservice to the lives, legacies, and memories of our deceased family members and to us, the immediate victim-family members that live this nightmare each and every day.”

And Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Federation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle in May of this year in which he argued that “Judaism does not reject the death penalty.”

“Every single book of the Torah … calls for the death penalty,” Schiff wrote. “The greatest constitutional work of Judaism repeatedly endorses the death penalty, at least rhetorically. It is, therefore, simply untenable to claim that Judaism is theoretically opposed to capital punishment.”

But, Schiff also went on to note that, even with that power at their disposal, Judaism “consciously forged a different path.

“The oral Torah details a host of provisions and safeguards that would have made carrying out the death sentence a very unusual occurrence, even if the rabbis had retained the power to implement the death penalty in practice,” he continued.

David Harris is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and an advisor for the 10.27 Healing Partnership. He said that if the gunman does receive a death sentence,it would take some years for his appeal to work its way through the justice system. And that’s taking into account that the federal appellate system usually works faster than state systems.

As Pgh synagogue shooter trial begins, there’s new hope for changes to Pa.’s gun, hate crimes laws

“It is important to understand that when somebody has received a death sentence in the federal system, their activities and their ability to communicate with the outside world is highly, highly restricted,” he said. “They would not really have much chance, if any chance at all, of communicating with people on the outside except in a very, very limited fashion.” 

Those kinds of restrictions could serve to curtail any cult status the gunman may have among antisemitic groups, and would greatly reduce his public profile. The gunman expressed virulent antisemitic and white supremacist views before and after the shooting.

Even if the synagogue shooter was to be sentenced to life in prison, Harris added, it’s likely he would have restrictions placed on him as well that other inmates awaiting appeal might not, since the Federal Bureau of Prisons may consider him a particularly notorious inmate. 

I think it would be legitimate for people in the position of the victims here if they said to themselves, ‘whatever happens however long it takes, whether he survives to the point where he’s executed or not, we will want to know that he cannot in any way spread his poison any further,’” Harris said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly