Some Tree Of Life Members Believe Death Penalty For Shooter At Odds With Jewish Faith Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the alleged Tree of Life synagogue shooter, but faith leaders and members of the Pittsburgh congregation are of many minds on whether it's the right path.
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Some Tree Of Life Members Believe Death Penalty For Shooter At Odds With Jewish Faith

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Some Tree Of Life Members Believe Death Penalty For Shooter At Odds With Jewish Faith

Some Tree Of Life Members Believe Death Penalty For Shooter At Odds With Jewish Faith

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, prosecutors want the death penalty for the man accused of killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year. To those prosecutors, that's a fitting penalty for a man motivated by hatred of Jews. To some survivors, an execution would conflict with their principles. An-Li Herring reports from our station WESA.

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors have to consult with victims of crimes and surviving family members before deciding whether to seek capital punishment. But Rory Little, who previously served on the U.S. Department of Justice's capital case review committee, says that's only one factor a prosecutor must consider.

RORY LITTLE: The obligation of Department of Justice lawyers is to sort of execute federal law the way it's been written. And my moral position as to whether it's a good law or bad law is supposedly not part of the mix.

HERRING: Little says if Bowers is found guilty and victims choose to give impact statements at sentencing, jurors could hear from those who oppose the death penalty. The jury would decide whether he's sentenced to death. Judy Yanowitz, who worshipped at the Tree of Life synagogue, says she's morally opposed to capital punishment.

JUDY YANOWITZ: I think it comes from a basic value in a human life and the possibility that you can ask for forgiveness.

HERRING: I asked Yanowitz whether she could find it within herself to forgive the accused shooter.

YANOWITZ: I don't know the answer to that.

HERRING: Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a congregation that was housed at Tree of Life. At a recent news conference, a reporter asked if he had thoughts on the decision to seek the death penalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY MYERS: No. I have complete faith in the Department of Justice to act professionally and do the right thing.

HERRING: But many Jewish leaders say their faith generally condemns capital punishment.

SETH ADELSON: (Speaking Hebrew).

HERRING: Rabbi Seth Adelson of Pittsburgh's Congregation Beth Shalom, just blocks from Tree of Life, reads in Hebrew from the Jewish Talmud. While the Torah calls for capital punishment for a range of offenses, Adelson says later writings denounce the practice in almost all cases as, quote, "bloodthirsty."

ADELSON: We really believe that it's not up to us as humans to take a life, that really only God can do that.

HERRING: Yet, Adelson acknowledges some Jews believe in capital punishment. Stephen Cohen worshipped at Tree of Life and dreads the publicity a death penalty trial would bring. He says there are congregants who want the defendant to be executed. But he worries that a lengthy trial could prompt years of appeals and be painful for victims.

STEPHEN COHEN: Because that's the way our system works. That's my objection - it is not to the death penalty. It is the fact that we no longer do swift and certain justice.

HERRING: Cohen asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr not to pursue the death penalty, as did leaders and other members of two of the three congregations that were housed at Tree of Life. They wanted Barr to opt for a plea deal that would give Bowers a life sentence. But prosecutors say the synagogue attack was especially heinous because it was motivated by the alleged shooter's hatred for Jews. So while some of the attack survivors oppose the death penalty on religious grounds, prosecutors say they'll seek execution in part to defend religious freedom. No trial date has been set.

For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh.

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