Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is rumored to have national political ambitions, claims he reversed himself to oppose the death penalty after talking to families of victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting, but 9 of the 11 victims’ families say they support the death penalty.
In 2018, in one of the deadliest attacks motivated by antisemitism in American history, a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during a morning worship service, killing 11 members of the three congregations that met there.
Nearly one year after the shooting, federal prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty for alleged shooter Robert Bowers, who faces a 63-count indictment. At the time, Shapiro was Pennsylvania’s attorney general and told the public “the killer deserved to be put to death.”
“For more than a decade, including when I assumed office as Attorney General, I believed that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous crimes – but that it was, indeed, a just punishment for those crimes,” Shapiro told an activist crowd at Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia on Feb. 16.
Now governor, Shapiro announced mid-February that he won’t just extend his predecessor Tom Wolf’s moratorium on execution warrants, he will also work with the state’s General Assembly to wipe the death penalty from Pennsylvania law “for good.” He claimed his flip-flop would “make our system more fair and more just” and clear his conscience after his son asked him why it’s okay to use death as punishment.
The Democrat credited the families of victims of the Tree of Life shooting for his change of mind.
“I’ve spoken to victims, to families, to advocates, and to community leaders. I listened to the members of the Tree of Life community and was blown away by their courage and their fortitude. They told me, that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want the killer put to death. He should spend the rest of his life in prison they said, but the state should not take his life as punishment for him taking the lives of their loved ones,” Shapiro said. “That moved me. And that’s stayed with me.”
During a segment with CNN’s Jake Tapper about his 180, Shapiro once again attributed his decision to the family members who lost their loved ones during the shooting.
“I witnessed the courage and the grace of the families in Pittsburgh, who had a loved one killed while they worshipped, who said to me, ‘please, please discourage them from pursuing the death penalty,’’ Shapiro said. “If they could take that position after suffering what they did, then I certainly needed to rethink my position and I did.”
Despite Shapiro’s claims, nine of 11 of the victims’ relatives favor execution if the accused shooter is found guilty. In a strongly worded letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle in November 2022, relatives of the murdered Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Rose Mallinger, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein, and Melvin Wax chastised locals for suggesting the accused criminal should not die for the massacre.
“These views do not represent the vast majority of the victims’ families; they are, in fact, contrary to our views,” the families wrote. “The opinion the writer has stated is their opinion and theirs alone. Please don’t tell us how we should feel, what is best for us, what will comfort us and what will bring closure for the victims’ families. You can not and will not speak for us.”
Accepting a guilty plea from the alleged shooter, the relatives noted, “will rob us of our ‘day in court’ and will prevent the Justice Department from punishing the perpetrator to the full extent of the law, as we have sought for the past four-plus years.”
“We, the undersigned, will feel further violated by letting the defendant have the easy way out. His crimes deserve the death penalty,” the families concluded.
Only one of the victims’ family members, Miri Rabinowitz, wife of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, publicly opposed the death penalty for the antisemitic murderer because she didn’t want to “relive the horrific circumstances of Jerry’s murder through a trial.”
Her pleas for lifelong incarceration for the alleged murderer were joined by leaders of two of the three congregations that met in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood synagogue: Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation and his wife, who met with and wrote the Trump administration’s DOJ about their concerns, and President Donna Coufal of the Dor Hadash Congregation, who begged the DOJ to spare her congregation from more attention than it already received.
The family of victim Irving Younger appears to have never taken a public stance on the death penalty and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Congregation refused to commit to one side of the debate.
Contrary to Shapiro’s claims on national television, what the Tree of Life families and survivors believe about whether Bowers should face death if he is convicted is at best mixed. As the victims’ families stated in November, “most families of Pittsburgh synagogue victims support the death penalty for the shooter” and refusing to grant them that will “cause further harm to the victims’ families and the community as a whole.”
Bowers’s trial is expected in April of this year. If he is found guilty of the crimes alleged in the indictment by a jury in his first trial, he will proceed to face a second panel of jurors, who will determine whether his crimes fit the punishment of execution.
The defense previously stated that if the death penalty is removed from the list of punishments Bowers may face, he will plead guilty and take life in prison without trial. So far, the Biden administration’s DOJ has kept with the Trump administration’s rejection of that offer.