Pittsburgh gunman methodically hunted down Jewish victims, jury hears at trial start

Defense for Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 in 2018 massacre at Tree of Life synagogue, will not dispute his role but seek to spare him from death row by focusing on motive

In this courtroom sketch, prosecuting attorney Eric G. Olshan questions witness Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, in the federal trial for 2018 synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers, on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (David Klug via AP)
In this courtroom sketch, prosecuting attorney Eric G. Olshan questions witness Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, in the federal trial for 2018 synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers, on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (David Klug via AP)

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (AP) — Robert Bowers moved methodically through Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, shooting everyone he could find, killing 11 people and injuring seven others in what would become the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, prosecutors and lawyers for the gunman both said as his federal trial began Tuesday.

Bowers “shot every person he saw” that day in the building, his lead lawyer, Judy Clarke, said in her opening statement. But she questioned whether Bowers had acted out of hatred, as prosecutors contend, or an irrational belief that he needed to kill Jews to save others from the genocide he claimed they were enabling by helping immigrants come to the US.

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

Bowers’ defense team is hoping to spare the suburban truck driver, 50, from a possible death sentence over the massacre during Shabbat morning services.

Prosecutors — who rejected Bowers’ offer to plead guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table — opened their case by describing the terror he sowed as he moved through the synagogue, opening fire indiscriminately.

“Once he entered the synagogue the defendant began to hunt, he moved from room to room, upstairs and downstairs… looking for Jewish worshippers to kill,” Assistant US Attorney Soo C. Song said, according to CNN.

Jurors heard a 911 call played by Tree of Life rabbi and attack survivor Jeffrey Myers, who took shelter in the first minutes of the attack.

“I hear people screaming,” he said on the call, his voice shaky and urgent. “The person is still shooting.”

In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, is on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (David Klug via AP)

On the witness stand, Myers testified that he was in front of the congregation at the start of the service and, after hearing gunfire in the lobby, urged worshippers to flee if they were able — and told those who were elderly and frail to lie down or hide.

He wiped away tears as prosecutor Eric Olshan asked him about a portion of the 911 recording in which he could be heard whispering.

“I was praying,” Myers explained, adding after a long pause: “I expected to die.”

He said he was trying to decide whether to make a last phone call or video for his wife, but decided that leaving such a legacy “wouldn’t be fair to her.” Instead, he stayed on the line with 911 and prayed an ancient Jewish profession of faith.

“I thought about the history of my people, how we’ve been persecuted and hunted and slaughtered for centuries, and how all of them must have felt the moments before their death, and what did they do,” Myers testified.

He said he knew some of his congregants had been killed, and “I asked God to forgive me because I couldn’t save them.”

A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 19, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Prosecutors say Bowers made incriminating statements to investigators and left an online trail of antisemitic statements that they say shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred. Police shot Bowers three times before he surrendered.

“The depths of the defendant’s malice and hate can only be proven in the broken bodies” of the victims and “his hateful words,” Song told the 12 jurors and six alternates hearing the case.

Song described in detail how worshippers from three congregations who shared the synagogue — Dor Hadash, New Light and the Tree of Life — arrived that Shabbat to pray and socialize in what should have been a safe place.

As she spoke, some of the survivors in the somber courtroom dabbed tears. Bowers, seated at the defense table, showed no reaction.

Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community enter the Federal courthouse in Pittsburgh for the first day of trial for Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

The jury also heard a 911 call from congregant Bernice Simon, who reported “we’re being attacked!” and that her husband, Sylvan Simon, had been shot. Bernice Simon was shot while still on the line — her last, labored breaths clearly audible.

“Bernice, are you still with me?” Shannon Basa-Sabol, the dispatcher who took the call, asked in the recording, There was no answer. Neither of the Simons survived.

In a filing earlier this year, prosecutors said Bowers “harbored deep, murderous animosity towards all Jewish people.” They said he also expressed hatred for HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit humanitarian group that helps refugees and asylum seekers.

Prosecutors wrote in a court filing that Bowers had nearly 400 followers on his Gab social media account “to whom he promoted his antisemitic views and calls to violence against Jews.”

File: First responders surround the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter opened fire and 11 people were killed in America’s deadliest antisemitic attack on October 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

In the long run-up to the trial, Bowers’ lawyers did little to cast doubt on whether he was the gunman and instead focused on trying to save his life. As an indication that the trial’s guilt-or-innocence phase would be almost a foregone conclusion, they spent little time during jury selection asking how potential jurors would reach a verdict.

Instead, they focused on the penalty phase and how jurors would decide whether to impose the death penalty in a case of a man charged with hate-motivated killings in a house of worship. The defense lawyers, who recently said Bowers has schizophrenia and brain impairments, probed whether potential jurors could consider factors such as mental illness or a difficult childhood.

The families of those killed are divided over whether the government should pursue the death penalty, but most have voiced support for it.

The three congregations have spoken out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry since the attack. The Tree of Life congregation also is working with partners on plans to overhaul its current structure, which still stands but has been closed since the shootings, by creating a complex that would house a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The death penalty trial, which is being presided over by Judge Robert Colville, is proceeding three years after now-President Joe Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would work to end capital punishment at the federal level and in states that still use it.

His attorney general, Merrick Garland, has temporarily paused executions to review policies and procedures, but federal prosecutors continue to vigorously work to uphold death sentences that have been issued and, in some cases, to pursue new death sentences at trial.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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