Relatives of murdered Jewish worshipers weep on opening day of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s trial

The “depths of the defendant’s malice and hate can only be proven in the broken bodies and his hateful words,” Assistant US Attorney Soo C. Song said.

By The Algemeiner

Relatives of the 11 Jewish worshipers murdered in a gun attack upon Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in Oct. 2018 wept in court on Tuesday as they listened to the prosecutor’s arguments on the first day of the trial of the assailant, Robert Bowers.

A 50-year-old truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, Bowers sat in court impassively as the prosecution asserted that he should face the death penalty for the massacre — the worst antisemitic atrocity in the history of the United States. Twelve jurors and six alternates — chosen on Thursday after more than 200 candidates were questioned over a month — are hearing the case. They include 11 women and seven men.

Bowers stormed into the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. The synagogue was hosting three congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, for weekly Shabbat services. Members of the three congregations arrived at the courthouse on Tuesday in a school bus and entered together. The atmosphere in the large, wood-paneled courtroom was grim and somber as the gallery filled with media, survivors and family members, the Associated Press news agency reported.

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Armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, Bowers shot out of a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to the indictment. He was shot in turn multiple times by police and ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody. Authorities have said they believe he acted alone.

The mass shooting left 11 people dead and six wounded, including four police officers who responded to the scene. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

Minutes before he launched his assault, Bowers uploaded a video to Gab, a social media platform widely used by far right extremists, in which he ranted that Jews were responsible for an influx of immigrants into the US to the detriment of its white population, declaring: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Prosecutors began presenting their case Tuesday by playing an initial 911 call from Bernice Simon, who reported “we’re being attacked!” at the synagogue and that her husband, Sylvan, had been shot.

Shannon Basa-Sabol, the dispatcher who took that call, testified she advised Mrs Simon to find the wound and stanch the bleeding. Then the dispatcher heard additional gunfire and screaming as Mrs Simon, too, was shot. The couple were among the victims.

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“Bernice, are you still with me?” Basa-Sabol asked in an audio recording played for the jury, There was no answer.

Addressing the jurors, Assistant US Attorney Soo C. Song remarked that the “depths of the defendant’s malice and hate can only be proven in the broken bodies and his hateful words.”

Bowers has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty, which is shaping up to be the main debate at the trial, as the defense is not disputing that Bowers is guilty.

Defense lawyer Judy Clarke argued that Bowers could be understood to have acted on an irrational belief and not hatred. His lawyers have also claimed that he suffers from schizophrenia and other mental health challenges.

“He had what to us is this unthinkable, nonsensical, irrational thought that by killing Jews he would attain his goal,” Clarke said, adding: “There is no making sense of this senseless act. Mr. Bowers caused extraordinary harm to many, many people.”