Richard E. Vatz

The Tree of Life mass murderer deserves his sentence

The strongest argument against the death penalty is fear of error, but the odds of executing an innocent person these days are basically nil
Flowers surround Stars of David on October 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services on Saturday October 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar via Jewish News)
Flowers surround Stars of David on October 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services on Saturday October 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar via Jewish News)

Robert Bowers, the mass murderer of 11 worshipers in the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, wherein I was brought up (but was a congregant at nearby Rodef Shalom Reform Temple), has been sentenced to death.

Good, although the fruition of this sentence will take years.

I have written much about the need for capital punishment, judiciously sought, and how it is particularly valid in this day of DNA testing. Errors of conviction in the past were rare but real; in the current day of such available testing, they are virtually unheard of, particularly wherein a defendant is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but his guilt is beyond doubt whatsoever.

There is a general aversion to the death penalty in developed countries, as people focus on past trial errors of a decade or more ago and claim that some death penalty defendants were proved innocent and others’ guilt was less than certain.

Israel has executed but one mass murderer, pursuant to the 1954 outlawing of capital punishment over 80 years ago, save for treason and genocide and war crimes.

Adolph Eichmann in 1962 was put to death, and there was no doubt regarding his complicity in Nazi genocide of the Jewish people and, of course, his lack of remorse. Courts in Israel have invoked the death penalty, but the penalty has not been carried out due to commutation.

Let us go through the arguments that should prevail with reasonable people — for broader use of the death penalty generally and its compelling applicability in the Tree of Life case.

Some people make the patently invalid argument that executing a murderer is committing the same homicidal act as the murderer. This calumnious claim would imply that ending the life of a murderer, who had malice aforethought, through the will of the people, is the same as committing the murder for which he or she is being punished. That fallacious equivocation is obvious to all but sophists.

In addition, the elimination of capital punishment ignores all of the miseries that murderers’ crimes and continued existence visit on the victims’ friends and kin.

For all of the analyses of the death penalty, one rarely sees or hears a public discussion or question-and-answer session where, say, a reporter asks a legislator if he or she would oppose putting to death someone who was convicted of blowing up a grade school and ending the lives of the children there.

Some of the anti-death penalty forces argue that the victims often do not want to see the perpetrators put to death. One can find such people, but they are a small minority, and you will not find many of them among the loved ones of the Tree of Life decedents, or hardly anywhere in larger than insignificant numbers.

Note the reactions by several victims’ relatives in Pittsburgh pursuant to the verdict’s announcement:

  • Leigh Stein, whose father, Daniel Stein, was murdered, said at a news conference “A piece of my heart will forever be gone…. Finally justice has been served.”
  • Howard Feinman, son of victim Joyce Feinberg, said the verdict brought him “relief.”
  • Victim Rose Mallinger’s family wrote that they would never gain “closure,” but that some justice has been effected (sic): “Returning a sentence of death is not a decision that comes easy, but we must hold accountable those who wish to commit such terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence…May we always remember those who were taken too soon — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Daniel Stein, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Irving Younger, Melvin Wax, and Rose Mallinger.”

Anti-deathpenalty crusaders often claim that murderous felons want to be executed, so capital punishment gives them what they want. Who? I’ll start you off: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma mass murderer killed 168 people of whom 19 were children. He fought the death penalty and then yielded to it. Name a significant number of those sentenced to capital punishment who wanted it from the start.

Some say if convicted murderers iterate contrition, they should be spared execution.

Really?  “I regret having murdered 11 people.”  Does that erase the horror?

In the Tree of Life catastrophe, the requisite clinical psychologists were, as always, available to deny the agency and responsibility of the murderer. WTAE Television in Pittsburgh reported that “Dr.” Katherine Porterfield said Bowers “had multiple, severe chronic life events and circumstances that put him at risk for serious mental illness,” mental illness which the defense claimed created an excusing “chaotic, unstable and unsafe” childhood.

Ratify that excuse and no one will even be incarcerated for murder. As psychiatrist Park Dietz, an old hand at demystifying psychobabble, testified plaintively, the defense experts “simply mistook every ordinary widespread white separatist belief as delusion because they were not familiar with them.”

Some people get into foolish arguments as to whether the death penalty is a deterrent. “It is a “foolish” enterprise because you no longer have a population that believes capital punishment, even if available, is carried out with any order of certitude. For whatever it is worth, regarding the active use of the death penalty — nonexistent in today’s America — over a decade ago, Michael Summers wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “[O]ur recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year… The study examined the relationship between the number of executions and the number of murders in the US for the 26-year period from 1979 to 2004, using data from publicly available FBI sources… There seems to be an obvious negative correlation in that when executions increase, murders decrease, and when executions decrease, murders increase…” (“Capital Punishment Works”  Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2007)

Bowers shot and injured four police officers in addition to his mass murdering. He brought an armament of weapons. You could not establish more the premeditation of a felon.

Remorse? He told mental health experts that he “took pride in the attack and wished he had shot more people” and killed more Jews.

As the likelihood of prosecuting innocent people for the death penalty decreases per the aforementioned new tools for investigation, if your legal standard were guilty beyond any doubt whatsoever and no regret whatsoever, it would have been obtained in the Tree of Life massacre.

There is no doubt as to Bowers’ guilt. And there is no reason for any sentient person to doubt the justice and necessity of putting him to death, any more than there was in putting Timothy McVeigh to death.

About the Author
Richard E. Vatz is professor emeritus of political rhetoric at Towson University, wherein he taught and wrote on political persuasion, and author of The Only Authentic of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model (Authors Press, 2022) and over 200 other works, essays and op-eds. He was named a Distinguished Professor at Towson University and has won many teaching awards. The Van Bokkelen Auditorium at Towson University has been named after him.
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