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October 27, 2018

Following the Charleston script, will federal authorities take the lead in capital prosecution of anti-Semitic mass murderer Robert Bowers?

Shortly after Dylann Roof expressed horrid hatred by slaughtering nine people at house of worship in Charleston in June 2015, I wondered in this post whether the state or feds should be in charge of capitally prosecuting a crime that reflected what Nikki Haley then called the "worst hate that [she has] seen — and that the country has seen — in a long time."  Though it took federal authorities nearly a year to decide to move forward with a capital prosecution in May 2016, not too long thereafter a federal jury returned a death sentence in January 2017.

Sadly, if measured in terms of numbers killed, Dylann Roof's crime has now been passed repeatedly. Around this time just one year ago, Devin Kelley murdered 26 worshipers at church in Texas before being killed. And now, as this Fox News report details, another gunman filled with hate "opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, killing 11 people and injuring six others, including four police officers, before being taken into custody."  Here is more:

Multiple law enforcement officials identified the suspect in the shooting as Robert Bowers, 48.

Police Chief Scott Schubert said that two police officers were hit during initial contact with the shooter and that two SWAT team members were also struck “during an engagement inside the building.” He confirmed that all four law enforcement officials are in stable condition....

As officials searched for a motive for the brazen attack, which took place on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, distubing details emerged.  Earlier, Hissrich said the episode fell under the category of a hate crime, and would receive a federal investigation.

Indeed, the gunman is said to have shouted that "all Jews must die" as he sprayed bullets indiscriminantly, according to KDKA-TV.  Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, said the "shooter claimed innocent lives" at a baby naming ceremony on Shabbat, what is trqaditionally the busiest of days for synagogues.

With other media reporting that Robert Bowers had a social media presence filled with anti-Semitic comments, this horrible case strike me as remarkably parallel to the Charleston church shooting in terms of the offense and the offenders (though the ages of the offenders are distinct). Especially with the current Trump Administration claiming to be even more supportive of the death penalty than the past Obama Administration, I would expect to see the federal capital prosecution script to be followed here as it was in the Roof case. And having the feds take the lead may make even more sense because the death penalty in Pennsylvania, though on the books, has been moribund for decades.

UPDATE: Not long after I published this post, I saw this new statement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which included these points:

These alleged crimes are reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty....

The Department of Justice will continue to support our state and local partners and we will continue to bring the full force of the law against anyone who would violate the civil rights of the American people.

October 27, 2018 at 06:06 PM | Permalink


Doug, in the wake of the horrendous shooting in Pittsburgh, President Trump yesterday told reporters that the shooting has little to do with gun control, but we should "stiffen up" and "speed up" the use of the death penalty.

I suspect that between now and the midterm elections, the death penalty will become a partisan issue. In Republican Party of Minnesota v White, 122 S.Ct. 2528, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Souter, Stevens and Breyer, wrote "Recognizing that political parties is incompatible with the judge's role, for example. Minnesota has designated all judicial elections be nonpartisan." O'Connor expressed similar concerns in her opinion.

Ever since now Justice Kavanaugh expressed the opinion that his opposition was coming from "Clinton revenge" and a "left wing conspiracy," I wonder if he has made himself vulnerable to a recusal motion in any case involving the death penalty.

Sadly, the North Carolina legislature has made all judicial elections partisan, from the N C Supreme Court down to the traffic court level. I voted early this past week and it made me cringe to see all the Rep. and Dem labels beside every candidate's name.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 28, 2018 5:43:08 AM

Since both the Feds and Pennsylvania are prosecuting this killer, under the concept of Dual Sovereignty, which sovereign has primary custody? I suspect that the local authorities arrested and charged him first, so they get first trial and first shot at convicting him.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Oct 28, 2018 10:33:52 AM

"(CNN)Consider the past week in America.
Wednesday, a white man with a history of violence shot and killed two African-Americans, seemingly at random, at a Kentucky Kroger store following a failed attempt to barge into a black church. After mail bombs were being sent to people who'd been criticized by the President, a suspect was arrested Friday -- a man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online.
And Saturday morning, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people attending Jewish services.
Those three incidents in 72 hours shared one thing: hate."

After reading the above I was reminded of the admonition in the Talmud: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, the people would swallow each other alive."

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Oct 28, 2018 11:35:13 AM

Jim, I doubt dual sovereignty will be an issue after Gamble is decided.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 28, 2018 2:43:54 PM

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