The shooter who killed nearly a dozen in an antisemitic 2018 massacre was sentenced to death Wednesday by a federal jury. He is the first person to be condemned to death under the Biden administration, which placed the federal death penalty under moratorium in 2021.
The October 2018 shooting saw Robert G. Bowers, 50, enter Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue during morning Shabbat prayer services. He killed 11 and injured several, including police officers. Bowers’ attorneys argued that he suffers from mental illness, a suggestion that prosecutors disputed.
As a candidate for president, Joe Biden, a Catholic, called for the elimination of the death penalty. In July 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium on federal executions while the Department of Justice conducts a review of its policies and procedures.
Although the department said no executions will take place while the reviews are conducted, the moratorium does not formally end federal executions and they could be legally resumed by this or a future administration.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), a national advocacy organization that demonstrates against the death penalty, said the Biden administration’s pursuit of the death penalty while federal executions remain under moratorium sends “a mixed message” and that Catholics “can’t afford to divert our efforts toward perpetuating the cycle of violence through executions.”
“Today is an emotional day for those who lost loved ones in this violent display of antisemitism. We hold the survivors, the city of Pittsburgh, and all our Jewish brothers and sisters in our prayers,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, CMN’s executive director.
“At the same time, we recognize that the federal death penalty is a fatally flawed system that offers many empty promises. For one, death sentences don’t deter or prevent violent hate crimes; in fact, many believe they create a notoriety that others want to emulate. Death sentences also don’t bring ‘closure’ to survivors as promised; they do, however, almost guarantee years of appeals and retraumatizing legal processes.”
Murphy concluded: “Robert Bowers is guilty of a heinous hate crime and needs to be held accountable as such. But as Catholics committed to honoring the sanctity of all life, we do not believe that sentencing him to death was the way.”
After the 2018 shooting, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh strongly denounced anti-Jewish bigotry and called for prayer that turns into action. Zubik stressed the importance of prayer, loving one’s neighbor, and working to end bigotry.
Then-Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said: “Religious and ethnic hatred is vile in any form, but the ugly record of the last century is a lesson in the special evil of antisemitism. … It has no place in America, and especially in the hearts of Christians.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267). The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. St. John Paul II, calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” encouraged Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”
Members of the synagogue were reportedly split over the death penalty, with most of the families of those who were killed supporting the decision to seek capital punishment while other congregants wrote to Garland in opposition, the Washington Post reported.
The bishops of the United States, while not having yet commented on the Tree of Life shooter’s sentence, have spoken frequently in the past in favor of life sentences for convicted murderers, even those who have committed heinous crimes.
When in 2021 the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings, the Boston Archdiocese instead called for life in prison without parole, noting that “Catholic teaching does not support the taking of life as a means of achieving justice.” The Supreme Court ultimately determined that Tsarnaev had received a fair trial in 2015 and reinstated his death penalty in 2022.
And late last year, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami spoke out to support a life sentence for the man who killed more than a dozen people at a Florida high school in 2018, calling the punishment both “severe and just.” Many observers, including victims’ family members, had expected and sought a death sentence.
The U.S. bishops’ conference opposed the Trump administration’s decision to resume federal executions after a 17-year moratorium. A total of 13 federal death row inmates were executed by the end of the Trump administration. The conference said in an August 2020 statement that “the Church’s opposition to the death penalty is clear.”
Last month, congressional Democrats introduced a bill to abolish the federal death penalty, calling the policy “state-sanctioned murder” and “deeply flawed.”