Accused Tree of Life gunman pleads not guilty to new federal charges

Robert Bowers’ high-profile attorney wants to resolve the case without a trial.

The Joseph F. Weis Jr., U.S. Courthouse on Grant Street.

The Joseph F. Weis Jr., U.S. Courthouse on Grant Street.

Cara Owsley / USA TODAY Network
MJ Slaby

Robert Bowers, the accused Tree of Life gunman, pleaded not guilty during a formal arraignment this morning before United States District Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell.

Judy Clarke, Bowers’ attorney who also represented the Boston Marathon bomber, said she’s hopeful the case can be resolved without a trial. It was the third time Bowers appeared in federal court since the mass shooting in October but the first time since Clarke took his case.

On Jan. 29, a federal grand jury added 19 charges to the federal counts against Bowers, bringing the total number to 63. Those additional charges included 13 violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and six corresponding counts for discharging a firearm during those crimes.

Bowers entered the Downtown courtroom on Monday in a red jumpsuit with his hands and ankles in shackles and sat between two of his lawyers, Elisa Long and Clarke, during the less-than-15-minute hearing.

Clarke, a high-profile defense attorney and death penalty expert who has represented notorious criminals like Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, joined Bowers’ defense team with Long and Michael Novara in late December.

Bowers only spoke to answer “yes” to questions from Mitchell and attorneys. After reviewing the charges in the superseding indictment and their penalties, Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti asked Bowers if he had an opportunity to review the charges with his lawyer. Bowers answered “yes.”

Rivetti then asked for a plea. Clarke responded and entered a plea of not guilty for Bowers. She also said she’s hopeful the case can be resolved without a trial.

Mitchell noted that Bowers previously pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. The judge also pointed out that U.S. Senior District Judge Donetta Ambrose granted an extension to attorneys in December, setting a pre-trial motion deadline of April 18.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song told Mitchell that discovery is ongoing, and Rivetti added that the trial would be expected to take three weeks to determine guilt, and even longer if this becomes a capital case.

This is Bowers’ third arraignment as federal charges continue to be added in the case.

Thirty-two counts in the new indictment are capital offenses, and the decision to pursue the death penalty at trial rests with the U.S. Attorney General. Otherwise, Bowers faces a maximum of life without parole, followed by 250 years of consecutive imprisonment, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Per the superseding indictment, the grand jury alleged that Bowers drove to the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, entered the building with multiple firearms and opened fire, killing 11 people and injuring six others. The injured included four responding police officers. Twelve congregants managed to escape without physical injury. According to the grand jury, Bowers caused bodily injury to the 11 people killed and two surviving victims because of their “actual and perceived religion.”

Bowers has also been charged at the state level with 11 counts of homicide, 6 counts of criminal attempt, 6 counts of aggravated assault, and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation, a first-degree felony, “based on what Bowers described himself as his hatred for ‘Jews,'” per a criminal complaint filed by Pittsburgh Police.

Also in the courtroom on Monday were members of Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that met at Tree of Life synagogue. Congregants there recently launched an advocacy group that will push for gun safety initiatives at the local, state and national level.

Speaking to reporters after the arraignment, member Jon Pushinsky stressed that they would continue as a vital congregation and that members planned to attended court hearings.

“We’re going to be here as often as we can,” he said.