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Convicted synagogue killer’s relatives take stand in bid to save him from the death penalty 

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s defense team spent Friday afternoon attempting to save the convicted killer from the death penalty by humanizing him through the testimony of his aunt and her husband. 

Hard of hearing and in a wheelchair, 86-year-old Clyde Munger said his nephew-by-marriage helped on the family farm. The pair occasionally went to eat at the Golden Corral, where the defendant enjoyed the chocolate fountain.

He said that the defendant, Robert Bowerswas polite, quiet, kind and “more or less a loner.” 

Munger said that he visited the defendant in prison because he was his nephew, and that he prayed for him. 

The shooter’s aunt, Patricia Fine, recounted growing up with an alcoholic mother and a sister — the defendant’s mother — who was emotionally withdrawn, sad and anxious to leave home. 

Fine said that her sister ran away for a prolonged period of time and lived in a residence for runaway women in New York before moving back home. She eventually married and gave birth to the defendant. 

The shooter and his mother constantly moved out of the family home only to return when money ran out and they were evicted, Fine said. 

Fine worried her nephew would commit suicide as a child, she said, because of the instability in his life. 

“This was so much deeper than a child who was sad, because his home life was really sad,” she said. 

The trial began Friday morning with the testimony of psychiatrist Dr. George Corvin, who said the defendant believed he was a saint working as a foot soldier for God.

That belief was central to the convicted killer’s delusions, Corvin told the jury.

His testimony was presented as part of defense efforts to prove the killer had schizophrenia and should therefore be spared the death penalty. 

Prior to the deaths of the defendant’s grandfather in 2014 and a close friend in 2016, he wondered why people had negative views of Jews, Corvin said. After their deaths he began to piece information together with his delusions, which convinced him that Jews are manipulated by Satan as tools to bring about the end of the world. 

Corvin said that during the 39 hours he spent with the defendant, spread across 10 visits, he attempted to ascertain why the killer did what he did. 

He said the defendant believes there is a struggle between God and Satan and that but for 144,000 members of the Jewish community (12,000 members from each of the 12 tribes), Jews were unwittingly part of the army of Satan. 

Corvin said that the shooter began attending the Whitehall Church of Christ in 2016 and asked Rev. Jeffrey Dillinger to teach him about the book of Revelation in the New Testament, which is believed by some religious sects to be a prophetic book focused on the end of the world and a final battle between the armies of God and Satan. 

The defendant believed this war would end in the obliteration of the white race, Corvin said. He told Corvin that he became aware of the truth about Jews in 2017. 

The doctor said this is why the shooter killed 11 members of the Jewish community celebrating Shabbat on Oct. 27, 2018. 

“It sounds absurd,” he said, “because it is psychotic.” 

Corvin said that the defendant’s delusional beliefs, which are symptoms of schizophrenia, should disqualify him from receiving the death penalty under the applicable laws. 

On cross-examination, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan questioned the doctor about his findings in relation to other doctors who testified for the defense, attempting to point out disparities.

Corvin said that he was open to the findings of other mental health experts. In a rare moment of levity in the monthslong trial, Corvin said, “You might ask me a question and make me think, ‘Oh my, he’s not schizophrenic.’” Olshan replied, “I might ask you several questions that make you think that.”

Still, the doctor was committed to his diagnosis and unshakeable in his findings.

“I don’t care about either of their assessments,” Corvin told the government’s attorney when asked about two other doctors’ reports. “I care about mine. I’m here to say what I saw.”

When Olshan asked Corvin about other white supremacists who share the shooter’s beliefs, the doctor twice said, “Delusions are fueled by events in our environment.”

Olshan also asked the doctor if he was being paid for his testimony, to which he said he was and that so far his bill has totaled $88,000. 

The defendant’s aunt’s testimony will continue Monday morning. Closing arguments and instructions to the jury are expected to be delivered early this week. 

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.