The federal death penalty trial of the alleged shooter Robert G. Bowers, 50, began Tuesday with an audio recording of a 911 call one of the victims, Bernice Simon, made after her husband, Sylvan Simon, was shot. Shannon Basa-Sabol, the operator, was the prosecution’s first witness, and testified she answered Simon’s call from inside the synagogue that day, the Washington Post reports.
“Tree of Life, we’re being attacked,” Simon tells the dispatcher in the recording. “My husband’s bleeding. My husband’s shot. Oh, dear God.”
“I’m scared to death,” Simon added in the call. Gunfire and screaming could be heard in the background.
“Bernice, are you still with me?” Basa-Sabol asked during the call. There was no answer. Neither Simon, 84, or her husband Sylvan, 86, survived.
Bowers has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death and 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The opening statements and testimony for what officials call the worst antisemitic attack in American history comes after a weeks-long jury selection process.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song told the jury that Bowers used multiple weapons, including an AR-15 assault rifle, as he entered the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood during Saturday morning services.
Song stated that after officers apprehended Bowers and asked him why he did it, the suspect “blurted out, ‘All Jews need to die.’ ‘Jews are killing our kids.’ ‘Jews are bringing immigrants and killing our people and committing genocide.’ And, ‘Jews are the children of Satan.’”
Bowers’ attorney Judy Clarke didn’t dispute that he was the shooter. Clarke told jurors that “there is no disagreement, no dispute and there will be no doubt who shot and killed the 11 congregants,” and that in the next phase of the trial, she would focus on her client’s “motive and intent.” Prosecutors rejected Clarke’s offer to have Bowers plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence; Clarke has also filed motions claiming that Bowers suffers from schizophrenia and epilepsy.
Clarke has defended several mass murderers in her career, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, who are serving life sentences in prison.
The rabbi and cantor for the Tree of Life congregation, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, ended the first day of testimony as he outlined the events of the morning, per the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. “I expected to die, and initially I was trying to decide, ‘Do I hang up the phone and call my wife or make a video?’” said Rabbi Myers. “I thought if this was the end, I wasn’t going to leave her like that, for her to hear that. So I decided to stay on the phone with 911.”
“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’ve felt at the moments before their death and what did they do?” he continued. “And what they did is they recited Deuteronomy chapter six verse four…. I recited that.”