Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Trial Day 1: Opening statements, witness testimony

PITTSBURGH — The trial against Robert Bowers, the man accused of shooting and killing 11 worshippers at a Squirrel Hill synagogue in October 2018, got underway on Tuesday.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

It’s been nearly five years since Bowers was accused of opening fire inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue, killing 11 worshippers and wounding others.

The charges against him include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.

Bowers could receive the death penalty if convicted.

In a last-minute decision, the judge ruled in favor of the government’s request to limit the distribution of certain evidence, specifically evidence depicting the bodies of the victims and certain recordings.

The evidence is not sealed and the public, including the media, will be able to view the evidence in court, but will not be able to rebroadcast, copy or reproduce it.

Warning: the details coming out of this trial are difficult to hear and may be upsetting to some.

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health effects from the trial, go to 1027healingpartnership.org to find help resources. As always, call 911 to report threats.


Prosecutor opening arguments

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song U.S. addressed the jury, saying Bowers had posted on social media sites, attracting hundreds of followers as he praised the Holocaust and blamed Jews for bringing refugees into the country.

She said Bowers pulled into a parking space that day, armed himself with guns and ammunition and posted a message on social media before he started shooting.

The courtroom was completely silent as she described in detail how he allegedly shot the victims and continued to shoot at officers responding to the scene.

Prosecutors said Bowers went back into the synagogue to “find more Jews to kill” after police arrived.

“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 said.

Song ended by reading each victim’s name.

There were about 20 victims’ loved ones in the courtroom. Some were moved to tears. Officer Timothy Matson hugged one of the victim’s daughters.

Defense opening remarks

“It’s complicated.”

Judy Clarke, for the defense, did not deny that Bowers shot and killed 11 people and told the jury there is no question it was a planned attack. But, she told the jury, the charges require that they determine his intent and motive: why he did what he did and what he thought he was trying to accomplish.

Clarke told the jurors that there is more to it than the story shows.

“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.”

She said the defense will work to let the jury know who Bowers is — a Pittsburgher from a blue-collar family who worked with disabled adults and cared for an elderly relative.

Bowers has about eight people seated behind him

Clarke said there may never be rational answers to questions the jurors may have, but she trusts that they will listen to the evidence and facts presented.

First Witness: Dispatcher details first 911 call

Dispatcher Shannon Basa-Sabol received the first 911 call from Bernice Simon, who told her, “We are being attacked.”

In the call played for the jury, you could hear Bernice Simon screaming for help saying her husband, Sylvan Simon, was shot and that someone was shooting in the synagogue.

Gunshots could be heard in the background. Simon said her husband was not breathing and she was holding pressure on his wound.

Simon told the dispatcher she had no idea how many people were in the building. She said the gunman was still shooting.

The dispatcher told her to remain quiet, then said she heard Bernice Simon being shot.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers takes the stand

The prosecution called witness No. 3 to the stand, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.

Myers became Rabbi when the synagogue was called Tree of Life after a merger of two congregations prior to 2017.

On the stand, Myers was asked to talk about the history of Judaism.

The prosecution unveiled a model of the Tree of Life synagogue. Using the model, Myers detailed the different parts of the building to the jury, where the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Life congregations all worshipped.

The prosecution showed photos of the victims from that day, asking Myers to talk about them.

Following a brief recess, Myers started talking about the day of the shooting on Oct. 27, 2018.

Myers stated he was standing at the table leading a prayer and heard what he thought was a metal coat rack falling. He then realized it was gunfire.

Myers said he told congregants to drop to the floor or lay flat on the pews and stay quiet, with hopes they would be unseen.

He testified that he heard multiple bursts of gunfire and that they were getting closer and louder. Myers went on to explain how he was able to escape.

The 911 call that Myers made while hiding in a bathroom was then played to the jury. “Multiple shots. I think it could have been 20 to 30 shots,” he could be heard saying in the call.

Myers said he asked for God’s forgiveness because he couldn’t save the members of his congregation.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story

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