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Suspect In Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Makes First Court Appearance

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The man accused of killing 11 worshippers and wounding six others in a synagogue Saturday appeared in federal court today. Robert Bowers has been charged with 29 counts and could face the death penalty. NPR's Brian Mann was in the courtroom in Pittsburgh today and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe what the scene was like in there today.

MANN: Incredibly tight security. Bowers was wheeled in in a wheelchair really surrounded by federal marshals. He was injured of course in that gunfight with police Saturday before he surrendered. So he came into the court wearing a blue sweatshirt. He's kind of a beefy guy. He had handcuffs on and just sort of a blank expression.

SHAPIRO: And I know the judge read a summary of those 29 charges against him. Then what happened after that?

MANN: It was over pretty quick. Bowers answered, yes, sir, a couple of times to the judge's questions. He was then assigned a public defender, and he'll be back in court on Thursday. The federal prosecutor who's handling this case, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady, spoke after today's session and said he's confident they have a strong case against Bowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT BRADY: At that time, we will have the opportunity to present evidence demonstrating that Robert Bowers murdered 11 people who were exercising their religious beliefs. And rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.

SHAPIRO: OK, that's Scott Brady, the federal prosecutor at that court appearance today. And, Brian, I know you've also been looking into who Bowers is. You were at his neighborhood talking with people who knew him. What have you learned?

MANN: Yeah, it's kind of a mix of industrial shops, plumbers and electricians and then these low-rent apartments. And I talked to a lot of people who lived right next door or also who ran gun stores nearby. And actually, all of them said they have no memory of ever meeting Bowers or seeing him. Forty-six years old this guy is and left very little trail that we can find except for these anti-Semitic, hate-filled rants online. I will say, though, Ari, that police say his motives aren't mysterious. In the criminal complaint they filed against him, they say he told officers point-blank - these are his words - that Jews are committing genocide to my people. And he told them that Jewish people need to die.

SHAPIRO: The attorney general also talked about this attack today. Jeff Sessions was at a meeting of The Federalist Society, which is a conservative legal group. What did he say at this meeting in Boston?

MANN: Sessions described this as a murderous rampage. And he said it's an attack on American values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was an attack on all people of faith. It was an attack on America's values of protecting those of faith. It cannot and will not be tolerated. It's a direct threat to what we are.

(APPLAUSE)

MANN: And remember, Ari; Sessions will have to sign off if federal prosecutors here in Pittsburgh do pursue the death penalty against Bowers. And they have signaled already that they intend to do that.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh is in mourning. I understand the first funerals are set to begin there tomorrow.

MANN: That's right. The two brothers who died Saturday, David and Cecil Rosenthal - they'll be laid to rest on Tuesday. After that, there are funerals now scheduled for the 11 victims each day - Wednesday, Thursday. And then on Friday, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger will be laid to rest. And as this period of mourning continues, there's another vigil tonight at Carnegie Mellon University.

SHAPIRO: Also, we learned this afternoon that President Trump and the first lady will visit Pittsburgh tomorrow. What have you heard in the way of reaction to that planned visit?

MANN: Well, the reaction from those I've spoken to here has actually been pretty critical. Some local Jewish community leaders wrote a letter to the president asking him to condemn white nationalism more bluntly before coming to Pittsburgh. We've spoken to a lot of people here and heard from local leaders who say they've been troubled by the president's rhetoric just this week - you know, his campaign speeches attacking the press, talking about immigrants and undocumented workers in the past. But he plans to arrive tomorrow with the first lady. I should say that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke really emotionally about this today at the press briefing. She said, we all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Brian Mann in Pittsburgh. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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