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The death penalty trial for the man accused of killing 11 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue begins. Here’s what to know

<i>Jeff Swensen/Getty Images</i><br/>Mourners visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue on October 31
Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Mourners visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue on October 31

By Holly Yan, CNN

More than four years after what’s believed to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, the man accused of fatally shooting 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is about to stand trial in a rare federal death penalty case.

Jury selection has begun in the trial of Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old Pittsburgh-area man who faces 63 counts in a federal indictment, including 22 punishable by death.

The massacre inflicted agony and fear across the American Jewish community amid a rise in antisemitism cases — and spurred new discussion about hate crime laws.

Now, the trial has renewed painful memories of that tragic day.

“I have a number of families of survivors here and (of) victims,” said state Rep. Daniel Frankel, who serves the neighborhood where Tree of Life is located. “It’s traumatizing to have this trial taking place. But it’s necessary. And our community is very resilient.”

Here’s what to know about the synagogue shooting trial:

The trial could last for months

The trial is expected to be long, and jury selection alone could last weeks — possibly until mid-May — the court has estimated. Part of the challenge involves screening juror candidates about their feelings regarding the death penalty.

The trial itself could last until mid-July, the court has warned potential jurors.

Bowers faces federal charges including obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence. He has pleaded not guilty.

His defense team has proffered a plea deal: life in prison in exchange for removing the possibility of the death penalty, court documents show. But federal prosecutors have not budged on that request.

Prosecutors have cited several reasons for pursuing the death penalty, saying Bowers’ antisemitic views played a role in the shooting; the shooting was intentional; and Bowers showed no remorse, according to a federal notice to seek the death penalty.

The case against Bowers began during the Trump administration, before the US Justice Department in the Biden era issued a federal death penalty moratorium.

The massacre happened during morning services

The bloodshed took place October 27, 2018, as three congregations were holding Saturday Shabbat services at the Tree of Life.

The rampage left 11 worshipers dead and several more wounded.

The slain victims included a beloved community doctor, a great-grandmother and a couple who’d gotten married at the same synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

After officers got to the scene, a shootout between the suspect and police ensued. Bowers was shot multiple times.

The suspect allegedly said he wanted ‘to kill all Jews’

During the shootout, Bowers made antisemitic comments, according to an FBI affidavit.

“They’re committing genocide to my people,” he told police, according to the FBI document. “I just want to kill Jews.”

Shortly after the massacre — when Bowers was in custody and getting medical treatment — he told a SWAT officer he wanted all Jews to die and also that “they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people,” according to a police criminal complaint.

The alleged killer also posted radical, antisemitic views on the social media platform Gab, authorities said.

He claimed then-President Donald Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish people, used antisemitic slurs, wrote about an “infestation” and posted pictures of his handgun collection, a law enforcement source said.

Moments before the massacre, Bowers logged onto Gab and wrote to his followers: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The rampage rekindled a push to combat hate crimes

The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre is believed to be the deadliest attack against Jewish people in US history, the Anti-Defamation League has said.

The bloodshed spurred new discussion about hate crime laws.

“One of the things that we’ve been trying to do for years is just update Pennsylvania’s hate crime statute,” said Frankel, the state representative.

“We believe that we need to provide our communities better tools in order to confront what has apparently become normal throughout our country … targeting people because of who they are, who they love, what they believe in. And we are woefully short of having the tools to be able to address this,” the Democratic lawmaker told CNN on Monday.

“We want to update the current laws to provide more significant penalties to provide a civil course of action to educate our law enforcement folks how to identify and prosecute hate crimes,” Frankel said. “There’s an epidemic in our country.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Sarah Boxer, Danny Freeman, Dakin Andone and Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.

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