On August 1, 2023, death-qualified federal jurors unanimously recommended a sentence of death for Robert Bowers, who they had earlier convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.  The jury agreed with all five aggravating factors alleged by the prosecution during the penalty phase but rejected defense counsel’s argument that Mr. Bowers’ schizophrenia and delusions meant he should not be sentenced to death.  He will be formally sentenced by the court on August 3, 2023.  Family members of the victims, some of whom will address the court before sentencing, have been divided about the punishment that Mr. Bowers should receive.  

Mr. Bowers had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, but the federal government rejected that offer.  This is the first federal death sentence since 2019 and the first secured by the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice.  In March, an unsuccessful effort to secure a federal death sentence in the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, who killed 8 bikers on a New York City bike path in 2017, ended in eight consecutive life sentences.  

The next steps for Mr. Bowers will include an automatic appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which will conduct a review of the trial record for errors.  Mr. Bowers may then appeal that decision to the United States Supreme Court for discretionary review.  If unsuccessful, he will have just one meaningful opportunity to challenge his conviction and death sentence in federal habeas proceedings by asserting other claims and evidence, and then pursue appeals through the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and United States Supreme Court. 

Mr. Bowers will be the 42nd person on the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. Federally death-sentenced prisoners usually spend many years and sometimes decades on the restrictive federal death row before an execution date is set.  The last executions occurred in 2020 – 2021 when thirteen prisoners were executed by the federal government under the Trump Administration. No executions have occurred during the Biden Administration because Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a July 2021 memorandum that declared a moratorium on executions while the DOJ reviews its execution policies and procedures. That review has not been completed. In the same memorandum, Attorney General Garland noted that “[s]erious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases.”

Mr. Bowers may face yet another trial and another possible death sentence if the Allegheny County district attorney’s office decides to move forward with state charges of criminal homicide.  The office has said it will consult with family members before making a final decision. There is a currently a governor-imposed moratorium on executions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The DOJ is still considering whether to seek a death sentence for Payton Gendron, accused of killing ten people at the Tops Friendly Supermarket in Buffalo, New York on May 14, 2022.  New York state opted out of using the death penalty; however, the federal government has jurisdiction to seek a death sentence there and in all other U.S. states, territories, and Washington, D.C. The DOJ recently decided against seeking a death sentence for Patrick Crusius, who pled guilty of killing 23 people and injuring 22 others in an El Paso, Texas Walmart in August 2019. Mr. Crusius pled guilty and was sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences.  In July, El Paso District Attorney Bill Hicks announced that he will prosecute and seek a state death sentence for Mr. Crusius.


Peter Smith and Michael Rubinkam, Pittsburgh syn­a­gogue gun­man will be sen­tenced to death for the nation’s dead­liest anti­se­mit­ic attack, Associated Press, August 2, 2023; Campbell Robertson, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise, 11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts, The New York Times, October 272018

See United States Department of Justice press release on Patrick Crusius’ life sentences.