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Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting trial opens with harrowing 911 call of victim’s last words

(CNN) — The federal death penalty trial of the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 began Tuesday with harrowing audio of a 911 call featuring one of the victim’s last words.

Shannon Basa-Sabol, a 911 call dispatcher, was the first witness in the trial and testified she answered an emergency call from Bernice Simon from inside the Tree of Life synagogue that day.

“I was hearing her being shot,” Basa-Sabol told the court.

Federal prosecutors played audio of the 911 call in court. Loud noises could be heard in the background of the call, including shrieking and commotion, as a gunman shot congregants inside.

“Tree of Life, we’re being attacked … We’re being attacked!” Simon exclaimed on the phone. “My husband’s shot, oh dear God, my husband’s bleeding, he’s shot in the back.”

“I’m scared to death,” she added in the call. The screaming continued, and the dispatcher asked Simon if she could hear her, to which there was then no response.

Simon, 84, and her husband Sylvan, 86, were both killed.

The 911 call and opening statements marked the beginning of the trial for Robert Bowers, 50, who 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.

The trial is expected to last into July. Jury selection began in late April, with 12 jurors and six alternates seated last week.

In opening statements Tuesday, both prosecutors and defense attorneys focused their arguments on Bowers’ motive and intent. Prosecutors said he carried out the attack due to his hatred for Jews.

“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,” said prosecutor Soo C. Song.

In response, defense attorney Judy Clarke acknowledged there was “no question that this was a planned act” but asked jurors to “carefully scrutinize his intent” in the shooting.

“The prosecution says that Robert Bowers had a deep and abiding prejudice, that he hated Jews,” she said. “We know that there is more to the story.”

What the case is about

The charges stem from the heinous shooting in which Bowers allegedly stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on the morning of Saturday, October 27, 2018. The synagogue was hosting three congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, for weekly Shabbat services.

Armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, he shot out a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to the indictment. He was shot 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 the Simon couple, who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

For weeks before the shooting, Bowers posted attacks on immigrants and Jewish people on Gab, a small social media platform then used by far-right extremists. He particularly criticized migrants as “invaders” and repeatedly disparaged the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit providing support to refugees.

The Justice Department said minutes before storming inside the building, Bowers logged onto Gab and wrote, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

He also made antisemitic comments during the shooting and while receiving medical care indicating his desire to “kill Jews,” according to a superseding indictment.

The mass shooting is part of a broader rise in antisemitism in recent years. A year afterward, a 19-year-old killed one person and wounded three others at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California – violence exemplifying the ongoing threat to American Jewry.

Prosecutor focuses on antisemitism and graphic details

The main facts of the case are not in debate, so the primary thrust of the case is on Bowers’ intent and whether he should be sentenced to the death penalty.

Speaking for the prosecution, Song told jurors about the deep-rooted hatred Bowers expressed for Jewish people before the attack, through public posts on social media, even announcing the attack just minutes before. Bowers wanted “to destroy, to kill and to defile,” she said, adding, “He hated Jews, he called them the children of Satan.” He posted on social media “Jews are a cancer on the planet, Jews are evil creatures, Jews are pedophiles,” she said.

“The defendant attracted more than 300 online followers who encouraged him as he praised the Holocaust,” Song said. She also said Bowers wanted to start up the gas chambers again to extinguish the Jews and that he blamed the Jews for bringing refugees into the US.

Bowers drove to the most historically Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill, to carry out the killing, and “brought an arsenal with him,” including three handguns, one AR-15 rifle, and additional magazines and ammunition, Song said.

Song then described in graphic detail the carnage he left at the synagogue.

He shot several worshippers at close range and stepped over their bodies as he went to leave the synagogue, but he retreated inside after shooting at two police officers outside.

It was then that Bowers shot Rose Mallinger in the face and her daughter Andrea in the arm, according to Song. “Andrea lay under her mother Rose until she breathed her last breaths,” Song said. Andrea laid there with her mother, covered in blood, until she was rescued, Song added.

In all, Bowers killed half of the congregants inside the synagogue that day and indicated that the court will hear from the 11 congregants that survived.

After the attack, he told officers, “Those people are committing genocide on my people and I just want to kill Jews,” according to Song.

“At its core this case is about survival,” she said. “It’s about Pittsburgh police officers putting their bodies in front of bullets,” and preventing the defendant from unleashing further violence out into Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Defense lays out its side of the case

Clarke, the defense attorney, in her opening statement encouraged jurors to consider Bowers acted on “an irrational motive” and had “misguided intent.”

Bowers wanted to kill Jews who supported the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society because they were bringing in “invaders” and migrants.

“He somehow believed they were doing something so disastrously wrong, devastating to others and to children, that he had to act,” Clark added.

Bowers was born in Pittsburgh and was the grandson of a steelworker, and he had worked as a delivery truck driver and an aid for disabled adults, she said. He collected guns and over the course of the years had been to shooting ranges, “but never pointed a gun at anyone much less shot anyone,” Clark said.

Clark explained Bowers was on the internet exploring violent extremist content, yet Bowers’ family thought he was, “more likely to commit suicide than to harm others.”

“There’s no making sense of this senseless act,” Clark said. “Mr. Bowers caused extraordinary harm to many.”

Clark also said “There’s going to be questions we can never provide a rational answer to,” before asking jurors to uphold the rule of law. “We can do our best to uphold rule of law.”

This is the 2nd death penalty trial of Biden era

If he is found guilty of the charges, a penalty phase will follow, in which the jury will be tasked with deciding his punishment. The latter phase is likely to include personal details about Bowers’ life attorneys will argue make him more or less deserving of the death penalty.

Prosecutors have cited several reasons for pursuing the death penalty, saying Bowers’ antisemitic views played a role in the shooting; the shooting was intentional; and Bowers showed no remorse, according to a federal notice to seek the death penalty.

His defense team has proffered a plea deal: life in prison in exchange for removing the possibility of the death penalty, court documents show. But federal prosecutors have not budged.

The defense has argued Bowers has serious mental illness and diagnosed him with schizophrenia, brain impairments and epilepsy. The team is led by Clarke, who has represented high-profile death penalty defendants including the Boston Marathon bomber and the Unabomber.

The federal government’s use of the death penalty has split some of the victims in the shooting. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of the New Light Congregation and President Donna Coufal of Dor Hadash Congregation wrote letters to former Attorney General Bill Barr in 2019 against the death penalty.

“A drawn out and difficult death penalty trial would be a disaster with witnesses and attorneys dredging up horrifying drama and giving this killer the media attention he does not deserve,” Perlman wrote.

However, the families of nine of the 11 victims wrote to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle last year expressing their support for the death penalty in this case.

“Allowing the defendant to plead out will rob us of our ‘day in court’ and will prevent the Justice Department from punishing the perpetrator to the full extent of the law, as we have sought for the past four-plus years,” they wrote.

This is only the second federal death penalty case to be prosecuted under the Biden administration. In the first case, the terrorist who drove a U-Haul truck into cyclists and pedestrians on a New York City bike path was sentenced to life in prison after the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision for death.

At the same time, the Biden administration has put a moratorium on federal executions. Under the Trump administration, 13 death row inmates were executed over a six-month period from July 2020 to January 2021. Previously, there had been no federal executions in nearly two decades.