PITTSBURGH (AP) — The man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was brought into court in a wheelchair Monday, as some members of the Jewish community and others objected to President Donald Trump’s plans to visit, accusing him of contributing to a toxic political climate in the U.S. that might have led to the bloodshed.
With the first funerals set for Tuesday, the White House announced that Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit the same day to “express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community” over the 11 congregants killed Saturday in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Some Pittsburghers urged Trump to stay away.
“His language has encouraged hatred and fear of immigrants, which is part of the reason why these people were killed,” said Marianne Novy, 73, a retired college English professor who lives in the city’s Squirrel Hill section, the historic Jewish neighborhood where the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue took place.
Meanwhile, the alleged gunman, 46-year-old truck driver Robert Gregory Bowers, was released from the hospital where he was treated for wounds suffered in a gun battle with police. Hours later he was wheeled into a downtown federal courtroom in handcuffs to face charges.
A judge ordered him held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case. He did not enter a plea.
During the brief proceeding, Bowers talked with two court-appointed lawyers and said little more than “Yes” in a soft voice a few times in response to routine questions from the judge. Courtroom deputies freed one of his cuffed hands so he could sign paperwork.
He was expressionless.
“It was not the face of villainy that I thought we’d see,” said Jon Pushinsky, a congregant who was in court for the hearing.
Federal prosecutors are pressing for the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the attack and later told police, “I just want to kill Jews” and “All these Jews need to die.”
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called the shootings “horrific acts of violence” and added: “Rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.”
The weekend massacre — which took place 10 days before the midterm elections — heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.
The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political atmosphere in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame because of his combative language.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, said the White House should contact the victims’ families and ask them if they want the president to come. He also warned Trump to stay away when the first funerals are held.
“If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead,” Peduto said. “Our attention and our focus is going to be on them, and we don’t have public safety that we can take away from what is needed in order to do both.”
The White House did not immediately respond to the mayor’s request. Asked if Trump has done enough to condemn white nationalism, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he has “denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms on a number of occasions.”
Some looked forward to the president’s visit.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said that Trump is “certainly welcome.”
“I am a citizen. He is my president,” Myers told CNN.
But Barry Werber, 76, who hid in a dark storage closet as the gunman rampaged through the synagogue, said he doesn’t want Trump to come to Pittsburgh. He said Trump is trying to “instigate his base,” and “bigots are coming out of the woodwork.”
The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.
Bowers was charged with offenses that included causing death while obstructing a person’s right to the free exercise of religion — a hate crime — and using a gun to commit murder. He was also charged under state law with criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.