- WASHINGTON POST
Prosecutor Says Gunman in Pittsburgh Synagogue Killings Hunted Victims
10:28 JST, May 31, 2023
PITTSBURGH – The man charged with killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 acted out of a deep-rooted hatred of Jews, according to federal prosecutors who Tuesday in court played audio recordings in which the shooter was heard stalking terrified victims.
Robert G. Bowers, 50, of Baldwin, Pa., used multiple weapons, including an AR-15 assault rifle, and boasted of his intent on social media moments before he entered the Tree of Life synagogue during morning prayer services on Oct. 27, 2018, Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song told the 12-member jury on the first day of trial testimony.
He did not spray bullets at random, she said, but tracked down congregants, shooting them at such close range – in many cases in the head, and multiple times – that he singed the flesh of some victims with the heat from his rifle.
In one audio recording played for jurors, Bernice Simon, 84, is heard pleading for help from a 911 emergency call dispatcher while trying to staunch gunshot wounds suffered by her husband, Sylvan, 86, who lay bleeding on the floor. After gunfire and screaming are heard, Bernice stops responding to questions from the dispatcher.
“What were you hearing?” acting U.S. attorney Troy Rivetti asked the dispatcher, Shannon Basa-Sabol, the prosecution’s first witness Tuesday.
“I was hearing her being shot,” Basa-Sabol said.
Both Bernice and Sylvan Simon died in the attack.
In her opening statement, Song sought to establish that Bowers’s view of Jews as “a cancer upon the planet” inspired him to commit the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Members of all three congregations that shared the synagogue – Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash – were killed.
After officers apprehended him and asked why he did it, Bowers “blurted out, ‘All Jews need to die.’ ‘Jews are killing our kids.’ ‘Jews are bringing immigrants and killing our people and committing genocide.’ And, ‘Jews are the children of Satan,'” Song said.
Bowers is facing 63 hate-crime and gun-related charges, which make him eligible for the death penalty if he is convicted. The guilt phase of the trial could last three weeks, court officials said, and if Bowers is convicted, the government will make the case for capital punishment in a second phase that could last up to six weeks.
In charging documents, prosecutors said that Bowers posted antisemitic and anti-immigrant screeds on a social media network popular with far-right extremists. Authorities said he targeted the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a longtime Jewish enclave, after learning that one of the congregations, Dor Hadash, was involved in a program to help resettle immigrants in the United States, which he viewed as a threat to White Americans.
He is accused of using three handguns in addition to the AR-15 assault rifle and stating during the attack that his intent was to “kill Jews.”
Bowers’s legal team, led by public defender Judy Clarke, filed motions stating that he suffers from schizophrenia and epilepsy, and offered to have Bowers plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence, which prosecutors rejected.
Clarke has successfully used plea agreements to keep several high-profile mass killers off death row, including Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”; Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; and Tucson mass shooter Jared Lee Loughner. They are all serving life sentences in prison.
In her opening statement Tuesday, Clarke told jurors that the defense did not dispute that Bowers carried out the attack, which she called “incomprehensible and inexcusable.” Clarke told jurors that the defense would instead focus on his motive and suggested that he was acting on an “irrational motive and misguided intent” that authorities, and the jury, might never be able to fully understand.
Clarke said Bowers was moved to violence not because of his hatred of Jews but rather because he wanted to stop Dor Hadash from helping foreign-born refugees, whom he viewed as a threat.
“His unthinkable, nonsensical, irrational thought was that by killing Jews, he would attain his goal,” Clarke said.
“Did he somehow believe they were doing something so disastrously wrong, devastating to others and to children, that he had to act?” she said. “Those are questions for which you will have to listen to the evidence and decide. The prosecution says Bowers had a deep and abiding prejudice, that he hated Jews, end of story. We know there’s more to the story.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Colville, who is presiding at the Joseph F. Weis Jr. U.S. Courthouse, allowed federal authorities to conduct their own psychiatric examination of Bowers last week, the results of which could be used by the government to rebut potential defense team arguments over capital punishment if he is convicted.
If the jury does not unanimously vote in favor of the death penalty, Bowers would receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison, officials said. The government prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on the panel of 12 jurors, and six alternates, after questioning more than 200 potential jurors on their views of the death penalty during the four weeks leading up to the start of testimony Tuesday.
The trial is taking place amid accounts of rising anti-Jewish hate. The Anti-Defamation League reported 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the country in 2022, including assaults, vandalism and harassment. That represented a 36 percent increase from the year before and the most since the group began counting in 1979.
White House officials last week released a national strategy aimed at countering antisemitism, including new initiatives intended to improve public awareness in places such as schools and college campuses and offer more community training to encourage the reporting of hate crimes.
Bowers is accused of killing about half of the people who were at the synagogue for Shabbat services on the day of the attack.
In addition to the Simons, those slain were Richard Gottfried, Joyce Fienberg, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. Andrea Wedner, who is Mallinger’s daughter, and Dan Leger survived gunshot wounds.
The federal charges also accuse Bowers of wounding five police officers who responded to the attack.
Family members of some victims attended the court hearing, seated a few rows back from Bowers, who sat next to his lawyers at the defense table. Some survivors took the witness stand, including Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation, who choked back tears as prosecutors aired the recording of his own call to 911.
“I expected to die,” Myers told the jurors, describing his thinking as the sound of gunfire got closer to his hiding place on the second floor. He considered calling his wife, he said, but did not want her to hear him perish, then thought of the historical prosecution of the Jewish people.
“We have something in our practice called the final confessional,” Myers said. “I’ve recited it many times for congregants [facing natural death]. But I never thought I’d be reciting it in such a situation – that I’d become just another martyr for our people.”
Myers survived after four SWAT team members escorted him out of the building. As he clutched the yarmulke on his head to keep it from blowing off on the rainy morning, he heard: “Rabbi, run your a– off.”
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