PITTSBURGH (JTA) — “If I have chance, will continue war,” appeared in a scrawl on a notepad, projected onto large TV screens in the courtroom.
The image showed a note taken by a psychiatrist in early June as he assessed Robert Bowers, the man who murdered 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
The psychiatrist, George Corvin, was working for the gunman’s lawyers, in an attempt to demonstrate that the gunman is mentally ill and so should not receive the death penalty. His testimony is part of the final phase of the trial, in which the gunman, who was convicted last month, will be sentenced either to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Corvin is not the first to note during the trial that the gunman has persisted in his deeply held antisemitic beliefs in the years since the massacre. But his testimony on Friday offered unsettling insights into what is going on in the defendant’s head as he sits impassively, watching the testimony of those whose lives he devastated.
Corvin, who met with the gunman 10 times in May and June, said the gunman saw the trial as getting out his message that Jews are a menace.
“Did he tell you he likes hearing the evidence?” U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan asked Corvin.
“Yes,” Corvin said. “I think he likes hearing the evidence so he knows other people can hear the evidence.”
Olshan asked Corvin to explain another notation from the June 3 interview, “I’m upset I still have record of antisemitic act for five years.”
The shooter wanted others to emulate him, Corvin explained, and was disappointed that his mass killing still stands as the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.
“He hoped the act would bring attention to what he, quote, ‘knows,’ so more people would be inspired to protect God’s kingdom,” Corvin said.
The gunman took some relief in the mass killing of dozens of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand months after his own crime, Corvin said, by an Australian who shared his theories of a Jewish plot to “replace” whites. “That person gets it,” Corvin said, describing what the defendant said.
The defendant believes that Jews are the instrument of Satan, Corvin said, and that they are assisting in the entry of immigrants of color into the United States to kill white people, which will trigger the End of Days.
Corvin’s testimony Thursday and his cross-examination on Friday replayed an argument that has been core to the sentencing phase of the trial: Is his antisemitism a function of schizophrenic delusion, or is it simply one man’s manifestation of the conspiracy theories that have for millennia been deployed to justify the persecution of Jews?
The jury has rejected the idea that those beliefs were rooted in illness twice, in the first phase of the trial establishing the defendant’s guilt, and in the second phase, to determine whether his crimes met the threshold to merit the death penalty. Now they are deciding whether he deserves the death penalty.
The defense is arguing that what they say is the gunman’s mental illness should be a factor mitigating against the death penalty. If a single juror among the five men and seven women rejects the death penalty, the gunman, 51, will automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
Corvin, a Raleigh, North Carolina, psychiatrist who speaks with a thick Southern accent, has proven the most resilient defense expert in the face of the prosecution’s insistence that the defendant is not schizophrenic. He acknowledged that the defendant’s arguments about Jews are commonplace but said that they were underpinned by his delusional belief that God had chosen him to carry out the massacre.
“People on Gab who hate Jews came to the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons,” Corvin said, describing the shooter’s outlook, referring to the social media site that is a haven for extremism, and where the gunman posted his thoughts about Jews.
“If you hold all of this together,” he said of his cumulative interviews with the defendant, “this is the result of mental illness. He believes he is saving lives. He would do so again if God told him to do so.”
“If the walls” of his prison “will collapse and if God wants to him to die in the conflagration, he will do it,” Corvin said.
Corvin wrapped his jabs at the prosecution’s arguments in self-deprecation. When Olshan noted that Corvin had only three published articles on his resume, Corvin acknowledged the paucity of research, and even added that none of the three was of much consequence.
But he added that he would trust the testimony of a psychiatrist who was practiced in taking patients, as he is, over one who focused only on research, referring to the prosecution’s experts. He mocked a prosecution expert, Park Dietz, for talking too much in his sessions with the defendant.
“The best way to” find out why someone committed a crime “is to keep your mouth shut, gently redirect, probe for details and keep your mouth shut,” he said.
He also told Judy Clark, the lead defense lawyer, that the gunman admired the prosecution lawyers more than he did his own defense team.
“He is happier with what they are doing than honestly what you are doing,” he told Clark. “He knows they want him to die but what’s more important is that they are distributing his message, the ‘truth.’”
The defendant has betrayed nothing during the trial, which began on April 24, seated at the second seat on the left at the long table on the left side of the courtroom. Not through three weeks of jury selection, not through the two weeks of the trial to establish guilt, not at his June 16 conviction, not on July 13 when the jurors decided his crimes merited the death penalty, and not since then as they consider whether he deserves death.
The gunman was convicted on 63 counts in connection with the attack, 22 of them eligible for the death penalty. The victims were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. They worshiped at three congregations housed in the building at the time: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light.
The defendant, always clad in a dark sweater — sometimes navy blue, other times slate gray — and a collared light-blue shirt — never looks at the jury or the witnesses; the one exception was when he stood to receive his guilty verdict, and then it was for just a few seconds, heeding Judge Robert Colville’s instruction.
As he has with other defense experts, Olshan sought to undercut Corvin by questioning his expertise on antisemitism and extremism. Corvin knew his extremists — he said he has testified in Ku Klux Klan-related cases — but flubbed one reference, which Olshan, who is Jewish, seized upon.
The reference came during an interview when Corvin asked the gunman about his post on Gab, just prior to carrying out the massacre, “Screw the optics, I’m going in.”
“Forgot last line enjoy the Shoah,” the notation said. Olshan asked Corvin to explain. Corvin said the defendant regretted not adding the line to the Gab post.
What does “Shoah” mean? Olshan asked Corvin.
“It’s intended to be a derogatory slur against Jews,” Corvin said.
“Shoah” is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, when the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews in Europe. It has come to be used occasionally in English and other languages as well, and is the title of a famous 1985 documentary film on the genocide by Claude Lanzmann, “Do you know it’s a reference to the Holocaust?” Olshan said, sounding slightly stunned.
“I didn’t know that,” Corvin said.
Closing arguments are expected Tuesday and Wednesday, with a decision about the defendant’s fate coming soon after that.