The white nationalist accused of massacring 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year in the deadliest attack on a US Jewish institution pleaded not guilty on Monday in federal court to a dozen additional charges including hate crimes.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, is accused of bursting into the Tree of Life synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood on October 27 armed with three handguns and a semi-automatic rifle, and firing on congregants as he shouted, “All Jews must die”.
Bowers, 46, pleaded not guilty to 19 fresh charges, which bring the total number of criminal counts he is facing to 63, including use of a firearm to commit murder and obstruction of religious exercise resulting in death.
Federal prosecutor Tony Rivetti said it will take up to three weeks to determine if the government will seek the death penalty.
One of Bowers’s attorneys, Judith Clarke, a death penalty specialist, said the defence hoped to settle without trial. A negotiated plea deal could allow Bowers to avoid facing the risk of execution.
Bowers, who had frequently posted anti-Semitic slurs and conspiracy theories online, sat quietly through the hearing, dressed in a short-sleeved red jumpsuit and shackled at the ankles.
He replied “yes” when US District Judge Donetta Ambrose asked if he understood the charges, and he said he wanted to be tried by a jury.
A member of the congregation in attendance at the hearing, Jon Pushinsky, said, “We are here to bear witness. We are here to show that this act of violence will not deter us from serving our community.”
The victims of the attack included a 97-year-old woman, two brothers in their 50s and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before the suspect was shot by police and surrendered.
On the day of the attack, Bowers, a Pittsburgh resident, said online, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The attack followed a wave of politically motivated pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and heightened national tensions ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.
It also fueled a national debate over the rhetoric of US President Donald Trump, who critics say contributed to a surge in white nationalist and neo-Nazi activity.
The Trump administration has rejected the notion he has emboldened the far right.
Last year, the Anti-Defamation League said all perpetrators who carried out at least 50 “extremism-related murders” were linked to the far right.
That total marked the largest number of people killed by the far right since 1995, the watchdog said.
In 2017, the FBI recorded a 17-percent increase in hate crimes across the country.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies