Get to know the trailblazing Pittsburgh judge handling the Tree of Life case

Donetta Ambrose has worked on some of western Pa.’s biggest cases.

Judge Donetta Ambrose

Judge Donetta Ambrose

Courtesy U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania

Donetta Ambrose was a 20-something law clerk in 1972 when she was offered a job with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office that no rising legal star or scholar could refuse. Ambrose, then a recent Duquesne University School of Law grad, would accept the position and spend the next two years as assistant attorney general specializing in prosecutions of civil rights cases in the commonwealth.

Now, more than four decades later, Ambrose is the U.S. Senior District Judge assigned to oversee one of the most significant prosecutions of alleged civil rights violations in Pennsylvania history.

The federal case against accused Tree of Life gunman Robert Bowers includes dozens of hate crime counts related to the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at the Squirrel Hill temple on Oct. 27. Six others, including four first responders, were wounded in the attack, which police say was motivated by Bowers’ hatred of Jews.

If prosecutors seek the death penalty, Bowers could become just the second person sentenced to die for federal hate crimes in U.S. history.

Mother Emanuel AME church shooter Dylann Roof was the first.

The case against Bowers is still in the pretrial phase, and while Ambrose’s role in it is more akin to that of an umpire than a player, experts say, her recent decision to shield the discovery phase from public view proves her influence will be felt in various and sometimes subtly important ways.

“She will be prepared in every aspect of the case and will know the issues and be able to conduct a fair and impartial role as judge,” said Duquesne University School of Law Dean and Professor of Law Maureen Lally-Green, a longtime friend and colleague of Ambrose’s.

“She’s very seasoned but also a person of the highest integrity. I have no doubt it will be a superbly run trial.”

Duquesne University President and Professor of Law Ken Gormley, another friend and colleague, called Ambrose “unflappable” and ideally suited for a case commanding this much emotion and media attention.

Ambrose declined an interview request for this article, but her personal and work histories are both well-documented.

Ambrose is a New Kensington native from a working-class, Polish-Catholic household.

After serving as assistant attorney general for Pennsylvania from 1972 to 1974, Ambrose went into private practice. In 1977 she returned to public service, taking the job of assistant district attorney for Westmoreland County. In that role, Ambrose helped secure death sentences for John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, the so-called kill-for-thrill murderers who went on a six-day killing spree that culminated in the shooting death of Apollo police officer Leonard Miller in January of 1980.

A year later, Ambrose became the first woman judge elected to serve on the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas. This on the heels of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor becoming the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“She credited O’Connor’s appointment with helping her get over the finish line in that election,” Gormley said of Ambrose. Public support for the death sentences imposed on Lesko and Travaglia was also a likely factor.

“Being a woman during this time was considered a novelty,” Ambrose said in a 2010 interview with Duquesne University School of Law’s Juris News Magazine. “However, being a woman probably helped me get a job in the DA’s office. Timing was important. They wanted diversity, and they wanted a woman.”

Ambrose, one of just three women in her graduating class at Duquesne University’s School of Law, added, “There is still not an even playing field. Granted, the climate for woman has changed to some degree. But, women still have to work very hard to get business. It’s hard to be where men are.”

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ambrose to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. In 2002, she became the first female chief judge in the history of the district. Ambrose remained chief judge until her term expired in 2009. In 2010, she attained the senior district judge status she continues to hold.

As a federal jurist, Ambrose has overseen high-profile cases before. In 2014, she rejected arguments by both parties in a land dispute involving the Flight 93 Memorial site in Shanksville.

In April of this year, Ambrose denied an attempt to have convicted Erie pizza bomber conspirator Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s body moved from its resting place in Texas to New York State. Diehl-Armstrong died in prison in 2017, roughly six years into a life sentence.

Ambrose has also presided over a slew of federal drug cases and white collar criminal cases in her time on the bench.

“I can’t point to one (case) and say, ‘This was the most interesting. This was the most exciting,'” Ambrose told TribLive in 2011. “I get wrapped up in every case. I still get excited when the jury comes back, and I get to read the verdict before anybody else knows.”

The case against Robert Bowers, though, is unlike any she’s seen before.

“Certainly it’s a very serious case with awful, awful injury to not only the people involved but the families and friends and community,” Lally-Green said, “but when that robe goes on she’s performing the role that the citizens expect her to perform.”

Gormley added of Ambrose, “She is not one swept away by passion. […] She knows the law and follows the law and people don’t mess around in her courtroom. For a difficult case, that kind of profile in a judge is really ideal.”

Ambrose doesn’t decide if Bowers will face the death penalty. That’s up to federal prosecutors, with the final say resting with the U.S. Attorney General. As of Monday, a final decision had yet to be made on that front, according to Margaret Philbin, spokesperson with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, a flurry of pretrial motions continues to be filed in the case.

A status conference with both the prosecution and defense is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 11, potentially bringing the case one step closer to trial. Status conferences are typically held to determine if a plea agreement is likely, to resolve evidentiary issues or to schedule trial proceedings.

Prosecutors have estimated that Bowers’ trial will last three to four weeks or longer if there’s a death penalty phase.

“If the U.S. system of justice is looking for the right person to handle such a sensitive, emotionally charged case, Judge Ambrose would fit the bill perfectly,” Gormley said. “She’s very strong, very much no-nonsense and very fair but really can take command of a case and make sure there’s a just conclusion.”