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Robert Bowers pleads not guilty to more charges in Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting

Robert Bowers, 46, was in Federal Court in Pittsburgh on Monday and pleaded not guilty to a new indictment that added 19 counts related to the October killing of 11 people at a synagogue in the Jewish Squirrel Hill neighbourhood.
Eleven people were killed in October during the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On Monday, Robert Bowers, 46, was in Federal Court and pleaded not guilty to a new indictment that added 19 counts to dozens he already faces. (Alan Freed/Reuters)

The suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last fall pleaded not guilty Monday to dozens of new charges as his new lawyer, a prominent death penalty litigator, signalled he might be open to a plea deal.

Robert Bowers, 46, was in Federal Court on Monday to answer to an indictment that added 19 counts to the 44 he already faces.

His lawyer, Judy Clarke, said the defence hopes the case can be resolved without going to trial. Clarke's past clients have included one of the Boston Marathon bombers, a 9/11 conspirator and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

The new charges against Bowers, of Baldwin, Pa., include hate crime violations, obstructing religious belief and using a firearm during crimes of violence.

Bowers, who was shackled, said little, giving yes or no answers.

Decision on death penalty under review

Bowers has been held in Butler County Prison, about 55 kilometres north of the shooting scene. If convicted of the most serious offences, he could be sentenced to life without parole.

Prosecutors in Pittsburg previously indicated their intention to seek the death penalty against Bowers, but a final decision rests with the U.S. attorney general.

Asked if the government would consider a plea deal that spares Bowers a potential death sentence, U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady said in a statement Monday: "The defendant is charged with crimes that carry the maximum possible penalty of death. We are committed to seeking justice for the victims and their families in this case."

Troy Rivetti, assistant U.S. attorney, said in court Monday that if Bowers opts for a trial, it could last about three weeks, not including any potential penalty phase. 

Bowers pleaded not guilty in November to the 44 initial counts, including using a firearm to commit murder and obstruction of religious exercise resulting in death. On Jan. 29, a federal grand jury indicted Bowers on the 19 additional charges, including hate crime violations.

Investigators say Bowers posted criticism of a Jewish charity on social media before the attack, claiming the immigrant aid society "likes to bring invaders that kill our people." Authorities said he raged against Jews as he gunned down people.

Among those killed in the Oct. 27 shooting were 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.

Donna Coufal, a member of the Dor Hadash congregation that occupies space at Tree of Life, said she attended Monday's arraignment "to bear witness. It's been a painful time, but we remain strong as a community."

With files from Reuters

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