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Most families of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims call for the death penalty

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A jury in Pittsburgh began hearing testimony today about whether a man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers should receive the death penalty. This is the same jury that found Robert Bowers guilty of murder with hateful intent and other crimes earlier this month. Oliver Morrison of member station WESA joins us. Welcome.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So jurors have begun hearing testimony on whether Bowers is eligible for the death penalty. Tell us about what they've heard.

MORRISON: So, yeah, they heard opening and closing statements, and they actually heard the entirety of the prosecution statement today. But I think it's important to kind of step back because the phase of the trial that they went into today - it's called the eligibility phase - isn't typical even for a lot of capital punishment cases. And so what's going to happen at the end of this phase of the trial is they're not actually going to give him a sentence of the death penalty or life in prison. Instead, the jury is just going to decide - is he eligible for potentially getting the death penalty? And so in the opening statements, it became pretty clear that a lot of what - a lot isn't in dispute. Like, we already know that he did this. He's been convicted. And they already know that there are some aggravating factors that would make him eligible for the death penalty, such as the fact that some of the victims were elderly and particularly vulnerable. But what is in dispute is his intent when he committed the crimes, and that seems to be where the big action is going to be in this phase of the trial.

SHAPIRO: Explain why that's in dispute because the jury already found Bowers guilty of murder with intent, right?

MORRISON: Yeah, that is right. But the judge gave specific orders that the kind of intent that is in play with the death penalty is slightly different. So the jurors are just going to have to think about it again in a new way. And so that's giving the defense an opening to try and cast some doubt into his intent.

SHAPIRO: And so is the defense arguing that he did not intend to kill them?

MORRISON: In a way - so the defense gave jurors a roadmap of what they're going to argue. And in their opening statement, they said that he had significant mental limitations. And by that they meant, like, that he had psychotic, delusional and irrational thoughts. And they also talked - that they're going to present expert testimony that his brain was damaged and that as a result of all this, he was suffering from schizophrenia and epilepsy. And there's, you know, all this - these scans that they're going to show as evidence. And at the end of the day, they also say that they have a medical history that they're going to show that showed that Bowers had been institutionalized in the past and even had attempted to commit suicide, and all of this should cast doubt on whether or not he had the kind of intent that is deserving of the death penalty.

SHAPIRO: If they can prove that, why didn't they try an insanity defense at trial?

MORRISON: Well, I talked to a professor in Pittsburgh, David Harris, about this. And one of the things he said is that it's just the insanity defense is very narrowly tailored, and it's also become very unpopular. And it's also tied to the fact that the defense's goal hasn't really been to get Bowers off. They had offered all along a plea deal for life in prison, if - you know, if - but the prosecution has denied that. And so they weren't really trying to plead insanity in the sense that he didn't deserve, like, any penalty at all.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, what did the prosecution say today?

MORRISON: It was very quick. They kind of called a bunch of family members up to testify to just emphasize the elderly and frail nature of a lot of the victims, to show that he was deserving of the death penalty. But they rested their case, surprisingly, on the first day, at least a day early.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. Why?

MORRISON: I think it's tied to the fact that they think that they've already proved their case and that the intent was clear in the first part of the trial. And so a lot of their work in this part of the trial is going to be rebutting the defense's experts who say that, you know, he had this form of insanity.

SHAPIRO: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA in Pittsburgh, thank you.

MORRISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Oliver Morrison