If convicted, Robert Bowers could face death penalty — but not necessarily execution
Robert Bowers could become the only person from Western Pennsylvania on federal death row if he is convicted and sentenced to death for the mass shooting inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue last year.
But with an attorney known for sparing the most notorious killers from the execution chamber, added to the fact that so few people are put to death by the federal government and with a process that could take decades, whether Bowers would ever be executed remains to be seen, legal experts told the Tribune-Review.
Bowers is accused of opening fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, killing 11 worshippers among three congregations. Two other congregants were hurt. Five police officers were wounded in a shootout with Bowers.
Federal prosecutors have not yet made a decision as to whether they will seek the death penalty.
“It’s probably as bad as it gets. If there was ever a case for the death penalty proponents to use, and use him as their poster child, that would be it,” said criminal defense attorney Tim Dawson, who represented Melvin Knight, a member of the Greensburg Six, in his death penalty case. Dawson also is handling the capital case against Rahmael Sal Holt. Holt is accused in the November 2017 shooting death of rookie New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw.
Bowers’ attorney, Judy Clarke, has a reputation for keeping serial killers and mass murderers off death row. Among her former clients are the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of helping mastermind the 9/11 attacks.
Both pleaded guilty and were spared the death penalty.
Clarke has already expressed interest in striking a plea deal for Bowers rather than taking the case to trial.
Federal prosecutors generally defer to state prosecutors in day-to-day homicide cases, but there are extenuating circumstances in which the federal government can impose the death penalty.
One such instance is the Bowers’ case, said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and chair of the Criminology Department at Saint Vincent College.
“The offenses you see in the Bowers indictment are windows through which the federal government can prosecute murder,” Antkowiak said. “They’re prosecuting it primarily in the first instance as either the hate crime, the destruction of the property, or the harm to individuals who are enjoying the exercise of religion or a crime of violence committed with a firearm where death results.”
If convicted and sentenced to death, Bowers would join 62 other people on federal death row, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that disseminates studies and reports related to the death penalty. DPIC does not take a political stance regarding the death penalty.
And if Bowers ends up on federal death row, he could be there for awhile. James H. Roane, Jr., Corey Johnson and Richard Tipton, have been there for about 26 years. The three were convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for their participation in a series of drug-related killings in and around Richmond, Va. They have been on death row the longest.
“If he were executed, it wouldn’t be for a long time,” Robert Dunham, DPIC executive director said. “We’re looking at potentially decades of court proceedings before there is a final determination, and who knows what the state of capital punishment in the United States will be at that time?”
Dunham said the most likely outcome of a capital case in which the death penalty is imposed — state or federal — is that the conviction or sentence is overturned in court.
Federal executions are rare
The federal government has killed 37 people since 1927, according to the stats kept by the Death Penalty Information Center.
And only three people on federal death row have been put to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001. McVeigh was the first person federally executed since 1963. Juan Raul Garza, a drug distributor convicted of killing three other drug dealers, also was executed that year. The last criminal that the federal government had put to death was in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for kidnapping and killing a young female soldier.
McVeigh was on death row for about four years before his execution. Jones was there about seven years and Garza about eight.
The only man from Pennsylvania currently facing federal execution is Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2013 for his involvement in the killings of 12 people. While in jail, Savage ordered a firebombing that killed six members of a federal witness’s family, including several children.
Pennsylvania’s death row cases
Pennsylvania last executed someone nearly 20 years ago.
Gary Heidnik received two death sentences for murdering two women he held captive in his home. He was killed by lethal injection in July 1999 at the state prison in Centre County.
Only three people on Pennsylvania’s death row have been put to death since 1995.
As of March 1, there were 142 people on the state’s death row. Of those, 19 were from Western Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Corrections. There are currently six capital cases pending in Allegheny County and one in Westmoreland County.
Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 imposed a moratorium on executions pending completion of a study on the effectiveness of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. That study was released last June. The moratorium is still in effect as Wolf waits for the Legislature to address the report and make recommendations for potential changes to the law.
The study stated that since 1973, 162 people on death rows across the country have been acquitted and had the charges that condemned them to death dismissed. Six of those were from Pennsylvania, according to the study.
A King’s Bench petition brought by two death row inmates, asking to abolish the death penalty, is currently before the state Supreme Court.
Dawson said he was on the fence about the death penalty before he represented Knight, thinking some crimes deserve it. His experience with Knight changed his mind.
Knight is one of two men sentenced to death for the 2010 torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, a mentally disabled woman, in Greensburg. The other man is Ricky Smyrnes.
“After doing Melvin Knight and after considering all the expense and time that goes into seeking the death penalty, knowing that it’s been proven that innocent people have been put to death … I’m against the death penalty now,” Dawson said. “I think life imprisonment without parole is certainly severe enough.”
Knight’s latest appeal was recently denied by a Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court judge, who ruled that evidence presented in a sentencing trial last November was sufficient to support a jury finding that condemned Knight to death by lethal injection.
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, [email protected] or via Twitter .