Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect pleads not guilty

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Chriss Swaney

Robert Bowers, the avowed anti-Semite accused of opening fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue and killing 11 worshipers, pleaded not guilty in federal court on Thursday, as three more victims of the massacre are laid to rest.

Funerals will be held for Sylvan Simon, 86, his wife, Bernice, 84, and for Richard Gottfried, 65, who were killed on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill district in the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

The accused gunman, Robert Bowers, 46, was arraigned on a 44-count grand jury indictment that includes 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder, one count for each worshiper killed.

Bowers, a truck driver by profession, pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial during the brief hearing. He was in a red prison jumpsuit still had a bandage on his arm from wounds he sustained when police responding to the scene fired upon him, and said few other words during the hearing than to say he understood the charges against him.

Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty against Bowers, who also faces hate crime and firearm charges.

Robert Bowers charged in synagogue massacre

Robert Bowers pleads not guilty

Robert Bowers is accused of bursting into the synagogue and opening fire with a semi-automatic rifle and three pistols in the midst of Sabbath prayer services as he shouted “All Jews must die.”

Six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was shot by police and surrendered.

The attack, following a wave of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, heightened national tensions days ahead of elections on Tuesday that will decide whether U.S. President Donald Trump loses the Republican majority he now enjoys in both houses of Congress.

The Pittsburgh massacre also fueled a debate over Trump’s rhetoric and his self-identification as a “nationalist,” which critics say has fomented a surge in right-wing extremism and may have helped provoke Saturday’s bloodshed.

The Trump administration has rejected the notion that he has encouraged white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have embraced him, insisting he is trying to unify America even as he continues to disparage the media as an “enemy of the people.”

Mourners had gathered on Wednesday for the funerals of Melvin Wax, 88, who was leading Sabbath services for one of the temple’s three congregations when the attack began; retired real estate agent Irving Younger, 69; and retired university researcher Joyce Fienberg, 75.

On Wednesday, the after-effects of the tragedy pervaded life in Squirrel Hill, the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, where the synagogue is located.

In coffee shops, customers talked about the victims they knew, remembering them as civic-minded, kind and pillars of the community. In the street, friends embraced and comforted one another during the period of raw grief.

Libby Zal said that Younger was such a fixture in Squirrel Hill that a local store he frequented would send him a “get well” card if he was absent for a few days.

Dan Frankel, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, called Younger outgoing and opinionated.

“He was very interested in social justice and he probably would not have wanted the death penalty (for the gunman),” Frankel said.

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