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Judge rejects trial defense demand to exhume corpse of shooter’s father

Efforts to argue that a diagnosis of schizophrenia was responible for the mass shooting have reached a new extreme.

People pay their respects at a memorial in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to the 11 Jewish victims of a mass shooting a week earlier, Nov. 4, 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
People pay their respects at a memorial in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to the 11 Jewish victims of a mass shooting a week earlier, Nov. 4, 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Jurors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial are considering if the man who killed 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in the fall of 2018 should face the death penalty. On Tuesday, the defense put forward a motion for a court order that the body of Robert Bowers’s father should be exhumed so investigators could collect DNA in order to confirm or deny biological parentage.

Throughout the trial, the centerpiece argument of the defendant’s lawyers has been to blame alleged severe mental-health disorders for the antisemitic attack, rather than focus on ideology as the key factor. Doctors diagnosed Bowers’ father, who killed himself in 1979, with schizophrenia, important evidence, the defense claims, in arguing that the shooter has the same condition.

The prosecution countered this, arguing that the man Bowers, now 50, regarded as his father may not have been his biological one. This prompted the defense to call for the remains of a man who has been dead for more than 40 years.

But on Wednesday morning, Judge Robert Colville sided with the prosecutor’s objection that “the issue of the defendant’s paternity is tangential and not central to the issues in this case” and that “the motion is completely untimely, and threatens delay and distraction from the pressing issues in the trial.”

JNS reached out to the Orthodox Union for a rabbinic perspective on removing a body from the grave in these circumstances. A spokesperson responded: “Please see the Talmud Bavli Chulin 11b, which explicitly allows exhuming a body to potentially exonerate an accused murderer on entirely different grounds.”

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