The Death Sentencing in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter Trial


Synagogue shooter receives death penalty.




After writing several daily columns on the psychiatric aspects of this trial, I was curiously awaiting the decision from the jury as to whether it would be the death sentence or life without parole. It is the death sentence, which was decided after about a day and a half of jury deliberations.

This decision is the maximum punishment for the worse anti-Semitic attack and killings in American history. Most, but not all, family members leaned toward this verdict. Of course, there can be an appeal.

From a psychiatric standpoint, I am not surprised. It seemed to me that the main attempt of the defense to make serious mental illness as a mitigating factor did not fit the perpetrator’s history. Surely, he was shown to have a very troubled past, needing psychiatric therapeutic help, but not to the extent that the mental dysfunction impaired his legal intent to kill. The attempt to exhume the body of his presumed father to add a biological predisposition to a diagnosis of schizophrenia seemed to be a desperate strategy. Even if the father had schizophrenia, the genetic vulnerability of the perpetrator from that would have been limited and not done much to substantiate that he had a severe version of schizophrenia.

What still seems missing to me is the role of the cultish thinking and preoccupation caused by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which grabbed the perpetrator’s attention and would not—and has not—let go. That, along with the other psychiatric vulnerabilities, makes more psychiatric sense to me. If so, what should be the punishment for those social media anti-Semitic conspiracy sites?

Following up on how the loved ones of those who died and of the perpetrator will be important. How, and if, this influences anti-Semitism in our country will also be important to follow. For psychiatry, we must be sure to convey how our clinical work differs from the conflicting testimony of psychiatrists on each side. Moreover, we need to do our part in reducing the cults and cultish thinking that are escalating on the internet, what I call a social psychopathology. Freedom of mind, as in the BITE model of Steven Hassan, is important for us all.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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