The federal trial of the gunman who killed 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history, it began Tuesday with a minute-by-minute description of how the massacre unfolded on a cold October morning in 2018.
Soo C. Song, a lead prosecutor, began his opening statement by describing how each of the victims arrived at the synagogue on Oct. 27, « in the sanctuary and refuge of their holy place. » The 22 people present in the synagogue that morning, half of whom were reportedly killed, were from three different congregations: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. Ms. Song described them greeting other worshipers at the door, chatting casually in the kitchen, and sitting on pews for prayer.
He then spoke of the defendant, Robert Bowers, describing his barrage of hate-filled posts on social media and how, at the same time as worshipers were gathering for services, he was « making his own preparations to destroy, kill and to contaminate ».
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Bowers, 50. This phase of the process will take place in two parts. The first, which began on Tuesday, concerns guilt; if Mr. Bowers is found guilty, proceedings will ensue to determine whether he will receive a death sentence.
The facts surrounding the shooting are mostly undisputed, so the trial will effectively be a month-long evaluation of whether the defendant should be executed. Mr. Bowers’ attorneys offered to settle the case with a guilty plea on all counts, in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of release, but federal prosecutors turned down these offers.
After Ms. Song spoke for about 40 minutes, Judy Clarke, a lawyer with extensive experience defending people accused of capital crimes, gave the defense opening statement.
Ms Clarke began by saying there was « no disagreement » as to whether Mr Bowers was the person who killed the 11 worshipers that morning, calling the killings an incomprehensible tragedy. She also acknowledged that Mr. Bowers had made « reprehensible » comments online.
But he said that unlike a state trial, which could turn into a « straight » matter if a defendant had committed murder, many of the 63 charges in the federal trial required a determination of motive and intent.
And while Mr Bowers had told police at the scene of the shooting that he had committed the murders because he believed Jews were ‘killing our people’, Ms Clarke argued that such statements were signs of his ‘irrational motive and intent misleading. «
In rulings on the defense and government motions, US District Judge Robert J. Colville limited what can be argued at the guilty stage of the trial. Ms Clarke said much of what the defense team intended to present about Mr Bowers’ background would not come out in this part of the trial. His defense attorneys have said in motions that he suffers from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
In the government’s opening statement, Ms Song described how Mr Bowers, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three pistols, « methodically moved through the synagogue to find the Jews he hated so much and to shoot and kill them. » She emphasized that he did not spray the chapels with gunfire, but rather shot six of his 11 victims in the head, two at extremely close range.
Ms Song warned the jury that prosecutors would present gruesome evidence and descriptions of the extent of the violence that day, but said such details were the only way to show « the depth of the accused’s malice and hatred « .
Witness testimony in the trial began after opening statements had been completed. Prosecutors played back recordings of two phone conversations between a 911 dispatcher and Bernice Simon, 84, on the morning of the shooting. She was killed alongside her husband Sylvan in the same chapel where they were married decades earlier.
“We have been attacked,” she was heard shouting into the phone, with the sound of gunfire audible in the background. “My husband is bleeding! My husband shot!
The operator told Ms. Simon to cover her husband with a sweater and check his pulse. Then the gunman reappeared and the operator told Ms. Simon to stop talking. The recording of the call exploded into an explosion of noise. Then he fell silent.
« Shut up for me, Bernice, » the operator said, with no response. « Are you still with me? »
Jon Moss contributed to the reporting.