Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting trial features prayer book with a bullet hole and survivors’ testimony

A powerful image of a Jewish prayer book damaged with a bullet hole was released as evidence Wednesday in the death penalty trial of the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

The photo was entered into evidence Tuesday during testimony by Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

In the Jewish faith, damaged prayer books are traditionally buried as a sign of respect, he testified. But Myers decided to keep this prayer book, known as a siddur.

“It’s a witness to the horror of the day,” he testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”

That and other images were released publicly the same day several survivors of the shooting testified about their split-second actions and decisions during the attack.

Robert Bowers, 50, has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

The mass shooting was 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.

A defense attorney for Robert Bowers said in opening statements they did not dispute that he was responsible for the mass killing. - David Klug

The photo of the damaged prayer book was one of a number of photo exhibits released to the public Wednesday morning, including images of the congregants present the day of the shooting and images of the synagogue after the attack.

One exhibit shows crime scene tape and drops of blood on the floor of one part of the synagogue. Another exhibit shows police body camera video of Myers exiting the synagogue and passing a line of police officers while clutching his yarmulke on his head.

Myers examined the book in court and noted that there is a stamp on it reading, “Tree of Life Congregation.” He testified that during the attack he fled the chapel and called 911, and he also prayed and thought of his ancestors.

“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 at the moments before their death,” he said.

Survivor testifies about hiding in a closet

In testimony Wednesday, a survivor of the shooting recounted how she and other congregants were ushered into a closet to hide from the gunman.

Carol Black, 71, the sister of victim Richard Gottfried, said she was in the downstairs sanctuary at the synagogue when she and other congregants heard several loud sounds that they eventually realized was gunfire.

She, Melvin Wax, and Barry Werber hid in a closet behind a set of doors and remained silent as the gunshots became louder.

“None of us were talking,” Black said. “At first (the noise) was coming from upstairs and then it got louder and that indicated to me that it was closer to me, closer to where I was.”

She said she heard the gunman shoot Wax twice, and his head fell inches from her feet. Wax, an 87-year-old accountant, was among those who were killed.

“I saw a shadow of somebody as they entered just between the crack of the door and the jamb,” she said, saying she assumed the shadow was the shooter. Despite the terror, Black said she remained calm. “If I remained calm, I would not give my position away,” she said.

Werber, 81, testified Wednesday that he tried to remain as quiet as possible while the gunman was just outside. He called 911 and in a quiet voice told them about the shooting.

“Tree of Life synagogue…shooting…man with an automatic weapon,” he said in the call, which was played in court. “A man was just shot right outside the door, please get the police here immediately.”

“My throat was closed, I was very quiet,” he testified. “I didn’t want anyone outside the room to hear me.”

After a period of time, police came into the building to rescue them and they rushed out of the building and had to step past Wax.

“I had to step over Mel to get out of the space … It was very hard to look at him laying on the floor,” Black said. “I quietly to myself said goodbye to him and followed the officers.”

75-year-old says he went toward the gunfire

Daniel Leger, who was wounded in the shooting, testified he and fellow congregant Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz heard gunfire and went toward it.

“Jerry looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Dan.’ We knew instinctively what we needed to do was to try to do something to help, and so we both moved in the direction of the gunfire,” Leger said.

Leger, 75, worked as a nurse and Rabinowitz was a physician, so they felt that “something dreadful was happening and we both trained to be helpers (and) wanted to help.”

Leger was shot in the stomach and lied down on the stairs, unable to move and nearing death. He began to pray and reflected on the blessings of his life, he testified.

“I reviewed my life. I thought about the wonder of it all, the beauty of life, the happiness I had experienced through my life … the joy of having two beautiful sons,” he testified. “I prayed for forgiveness for those who I had wronged through my life.”

After 40 minutes, Leger was carried out of the synagogue into an ambulance and suffered serious injuries. He now uses a colostomy bag and has nerve damage in the left side of his body, he said.

Rabinowitz was killed.

The defense didn’t cross examine any of the five witnesses Wednesday, and hasn’t questioned a total of nine witnesses so far.

What happened at opening statements

The prosecution on Tuesday laid out in graphic detail Bowers’ actions during the attack and highlighted his many comments before, during and after the shooting expressing 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.

The defense said there was no dispute that Bowers was responsible for the mass killing but offered a legalistic defense that relied on a close read of the hate crimes charges. Attorney Judy Clarke argued his motivation in the attack was based on his hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that helps refugees, rather than his hatred of the Jewish religion.

“Does the fact that he entered a synagogue to kill Jews establish that he was motivated by their actual or perceived religion, or was he motivated by the fact that he believed that these individuals supported HIAS?” she said.

Still, Clarke made repeated references to “this phase of the case,” a sign that the defense expects the case ultimately will proceed to the penalty phase, when the jury will decide whether to sentence him to death.

The charges stem from the heinous shooting in which Bowers allegedly stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue 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 and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

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