Prosecutor recounts a day of worship turned deadly in a Pittsburgh synagogue
By Campbell Robertson
The federal trial of the gunman who killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest antisemitic attack in the nation’s history, began earlier this week with a minute-by-minute description of how the massacre unfolded on a chilly October morning in 2018.
Before a courtroom packed with spectators, including several who had been shot in the synagogue that day, federal prosecutors detailed when, where and how each victim was killed.
Harrowing 911 calls were played, with the courtroom echoing with the pleas for help from Bernice Simon, 84, who was shot along with her husband in the same sanctuary where they were married more than 60 years earlier. And Jeffrey Myers, rabbi of the Tree of Life congregation, recounted whispering what he thought would be his final prayers in a small bathroom next to the choir loft as he heard gunfire and screaming below.
The government is seeking the death penalty for the gunman, Robert Bowers, and the trial is essentially a monthslong hearing to decide whether he should face execution.
The facts surrounding the shooting are mostly undisputed. Judy Clarke, one of the lawyers representing Bowers, 50, said there was “no disagreement” that he killed 11 congregants that October morning, adding that he had caused “extraordinary harm to many, many people.”
But before the jury can consider the death penalty, the panel must decide whether Bowers is guilty. He is facing 63 federal charges, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death and 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. This stage of the trial is likely to be dominated by the government’s case, with prosecutors describing how Bowers carried out his rampage and detailing the hate that they argue fueled it.
Bowers’ lawyers have offered to resolve the case with guilty pleas on all counts, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release, but federal prosecutors have rejected these offers.
If Bowers is found guilty, proceedings will follow to determine whether he should be sentenced to death. That is when his lawyers are expected to make their case, arguing that even if he did commit the murders, Bowers does not deserve to be put to death.
Soo Song, one of the prosecutors, began her opening statement by describing how each of the victims arrived at the synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, most of them older people “in the sanctuary and refuge of their holy place.” The 22 people at the synagogue that morning, half of whom would be killed, were from three different congregations: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. The Torah text, Song said, was on the imperative to welcome the stranger.
Song then spoke of Bowers, first describing his flurry of hate-filled postings on social media and then explaining how, at the moment that worshippers were gathering for Sabbath services, he was “making his own preparations to destroy, to kill and to defile.”
She described how Bowers shot out the synagogue’s front door and then, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns, “moved methodically through the synagogue to find the Jews he hated so much and to shoot them and kill them.” She emphasized that he did not fire in a spray of bullets, killing erratically, but aimed at his victims and shot six of them directly in the head, two at close range.
Survivors of the shooting who were in the courtroom on Tuesday embraced each other during breaks in the testimony.
Song, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney’s office in Western Pennsylvania, warned the jury that prosecutors would present some horrific evidence of the extent of the violence. She said that such details were the only way to show “the depths of the defendant’s malice and his hate.”
After Song spoke for roughly 40 minutes, Clarke, a lawyer with a long record of defending people accused of capital crimes, delivered a shorter opening statement. She called the attack a senseless tragedy and acknowledged that Bowers had made “reprehensible” comments online.
But she said that unlike a trial in state court, which might turn on a straightforward question of whether a defendant had committed murder, many of the charges in the federal trial required a determination of motive. “The federal hate crimes statue is something you’ll have to examine,” she told the jury.
While Bowers had told the police at the scene of the shooting that he carried out the killings because he believed Jews were “killing our people” in helping welcome refugees to the country, Clarke argued that such statements were signs of his “irrational motive and his misguided intent.”
Bowers’ defense lawyers have said in motions that he suffers from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. But in pretrial rulings, the judge, Robert J. Colville of U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, limited what could be discussed in the guilt phase of the trial.
“You won’t get a full picture of Bowers’ background in this phase of the case,” Clarke told the jury.
Bowers’ lawyers did not offer objections Tuesday, nor did they cross-examine any witnesses, including Myers, whose testimony brought the day to a close.
He had been questioned by the government for about two hours about the essentials of the Jewish faith, the building’s layout and how a Saturday morning Sabbath service would normally unfold.
But in the last hour of the day, prosecutors played the 911 call that the rabbi made from his hiding place amid the shooting. There was a long pause at one point in the call. The prosecutor asked Myers what he was doing at that moment.
“I was praying,” the rabbi said, halting for long moments between his answers. “I expected to die.”
He debated hanging up and calling his wife, he said, but decided he did not want that moment to be the last she heard from him.
“I thought about the history of my people,” the rabbi said, wiping tears from his eyes. “How we’d been persecuted and hunted and slaughtered for centuries. And how all of them must have felt at the moments before their death. And what did they do.”
Hiding in the bathroom, he recited the final confessional, he said, a prayer for the end of one’s life. “I was prepared to meet my fate.”