Suspect Pleads Not Guilty to Federal Charges In Deadly Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

Robert Bowers, the suspect in Saturday’s Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting, pleaded not guilty Thursday to all of the 44 counts filed against him so far.

Bowers had been indicted by a federal grand jury a day earlier for the murder of 11 people. By this they are suggesting the state of Pennsylvania has not charged Bowers at this time.

He also was charged with federal hate crimes, and could face the death penalty.

Investigators say Bowers opened fire during Sabbath services, armed with three Glock .357-caliber handguns and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Bowers had made social media posts expressing hatred of Jews and immigrants, and told police after the shooting that his intention was to “kill Jews.” On the day of Bowers’ arraignment, three more funerals were held for victims.

The last of the funerals is scheduled for Friday.

This is particularly disturbing because if anyone deserves execution, the man who murdered 11 mostly elderly people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday certainly seems like a strong contender. But regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, the Justice Department’s decision to pursue it in this case should trouble you if you worry about an overweening federal government, value the principle underlying the constitutional ban on double jeopardy or think the government ought to punish people for their actions rather than their beliefs.

According to Jacob Sullum:

The federal criminal complaint against accused Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers charges him with 29 felonies, including 11 violations of 18 USC 247, which authorizes the death penalty for fatally obstructing any person’s “free exercise of religious beliefs.” Such a crime can be prosecuted in federal court as long as it “is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce.”

To give you a sense of how loose that requirement is, the complaint asserts that it’s met because the guns Bowers used “were not manufactured in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” and therefore must have “traveled in interstate commerce.” Federal courts also have held that a church’s involvement in interstate commerce, such as hosting visitors or ordering Sunday school materials from other states, is enough to justify invoking this statute when someone vandalizes the church.

Such a broad understanding of the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce obliterates the distinction between state and federal authority recognized in the 10th Amendment. If Congress has the power to regulate anything related to interstate commerce, no matter how trivially or tangentially, what crime can’t be federalized?

This assertion of federal power is redundant as well as unconstitutional. In addition to the federal complaint, Bowers faces 36 state charges, 11 of which could expose him to the death penalty. Mass murder, it turns out, is illegal in Pennsylvania.


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