Amid Pittsburgh funerals, synagogue suspect pleads not guilty

A woman prays at a makeshift memorial near the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – The man accused of fatally shooting 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Sabbath prayers pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal hate crimes charges and other offences as the city’s Jewish community buried three more of its dead.

Robert Bowers, 46, who had been wounded in a gunfight with police and made his initial court appearance on Monday shackled to a wheelchair, walked into Thursday’s proceeding upright and without need of assistance, wearing a red jumpsuit and a bandage on his left arm.

He spoke little, other than to say he understood the charges and that some of them could lead to the death penalty, then entered a plea of not guilty to all 44 counts against him. He also requested a jury trial.

He appeared sure of foot and exuded a demeanour of confidence, answering questions put to him by U.S. District Judge Robert Mitchell in a clear voice and signing papers with a steady hand.

The indictment returned against him on Wednesday includes 11 counts of obstructing free exercise of religion resulting in death, and 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder.

A onetime truck driver who frequently posted anti-Semitic slurs and conspiracy theories online, Bowers is accused of bursting into the Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday with a semi-automatic rifle and three pistols and opening fire in the midst of Sabbath prayers as he shouted “All Jews must die.”

In addition to the mostly elderly congregants who died, two were wounded, along with four police officers, before the suspect was shot by police and surrendered.

It marked the deadliest attack ever on American Jewry. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

HEIGHTENED TENSIONS

Following a spate of politically motivated pipe-bomb mailing to prominent Democrats, the shooting heightened national tensions days ahead of elections next Tuesday that will decide whether U.S. President Donald Trump will lose the Republican majority he enjoys in both houses of Congress.

The massacre also fuelled a debate over Trump’s inflammatory political rhetoric and his self-identification as a “nationalist,” which critics say has fomented a surge in right-wing extremism and may have even 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.”

Trump, shrugging off protests that he was unwelcome in the city, made a brief, low-key visit to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to pay condolences as funerals were held for the first four victims laid to rest.

Three more funerals were held on Wednesday, followed on Thursday by the burial of another three victims – Sylvan Simon, 86, and his wife, Bernice, 84, who had been married for nearly 62 years, and Dr. Richard Gottfried, 65, a dentist, who shared a practice with his wife, Peg.

Augie Siriano, a custodian at Tree of Life, said the Simons often brought him chocolate chip cookies, and that Sylvan Simon, a retired accountant, liked to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers professional football team. His wife was a retired nurse. “They were just wonderful, graceful people,” Siriano said.

Dr. Jane Segal, a dentist who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh a year ahead of Gottfried, remembered him as a “wonderful man and a wonderful dentist.”

“You couldn’t find anyone finer,” she said.

Bowers also has been charged in state court with 11 counts of criminal homicide and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation, though authorities have said prosecution of the federal case will take precedence.

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