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Deliberations begin in Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting trial

<i>US District Court Western PA</i><br/>A photo exhibit entered into evidence in the trial showed bullet holes shattered the glass windows of the synagogue.
US District Court Western PA
A photo exhibit entered into evidence in the trial showed bullet holes shattered the glass windows of the synagogue.

By Sabrina Souza and Eric Levenson, CNN

(CNN) — A federal jury began deliberating Thursday in the trial of the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

Deliberations began around 2:30 p.m. and ended by 5 p.m. The jurors will continue deliberations Friday morning.

In closing arguments, prosecutors said the gunman, Robert Bowers, methodically shot as many people as he could find because of his hatred for Jews.

“You know now how he hunted his victims throughout the synagogue on multiple floors through multiple rooms,” prosecutor Mary Hahn told the jury. “You know how he murdered congregants still wrapped in their prayer shawls and clutching their prayer books.

“We ask that you hold this defendant accountable for everything he did to the worshippers who survived and told you what happened that day, and hold him accountable for all those who could not tell you what happened that day,” she said.

The defense in its closing arguments did not dispute that Bowers, 50, carried out the attack. Attorney Elisa Long argued he did so because of his hatred for immigrants and the non-profit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, rather than his hatred for Jews.

“Stopping religious study was not his intent or motive,” Long said.

In a rebuttal, prosecuting attorney Eric Olshan rejected the defense’s argument as “absurd.”

“These weren’t people who were engaging in refugee assistance,” he said. “These were people trying to practice their faith.”

Bowers 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 of any of the 22 capital charges, the trial will move to a separate penalty phase, in which the same jury will listen to further evidence and decide whether to sentence him to death.

The case stems from the mass shooting on October 27, 2018, in which Bowers stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and killed 11 people and wounded six others.

Prosecutors called 60 witnesses over more than two weeks to make the case that Bowers carried out the shooting because of his hatred for Jewish people, citing a series of antisemitic comments before, during and after the mass shooting, online and in person. The gunman stated matter-of-factly, “All Jews had to die,” one responding officer testified.

“The defendant was caught at the synagogue with the murder weapon so we know he is the shooter,” Hahn said in closing arguments. “He outright told SWAT operators he went to the synagogue to kill Jews.”

Witnesses included survivors of the attack, law enforcement officers who engaged in a shootout with the gunman, and medical, firearms and computer experts.

The final witness was a woman who was shot in the arm and survived the shooting by playing dead next to her dying 97-year-old mother. In emotional testimony, Andrea Wedner described the moment she said goodbye to her mother Rose Mallinger.

“I kissed my fingers and I touched my fingers to her skin. I cried out mommy,” she said.

The defense did not cross-examine most witnesses and did not call any witnesses of its own.

As the jury deliberated Thursday afternoon, the New Light congregation issued a statement saying they do not forgive Bowers.

“There can be no forgiveness,” the congregation said. “Forgiveness requires two components: that it is offered by the person who commits the wrong and is accepted by the person who was wronged. The shooter has not asked – and the dead cannot accept.”

How the attack unfolded

On the day of the shooting, 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, Bowers shot out a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to testimony. He was shot multiple times by police and ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody.

Four police officers who responded to the scene were wounded. Two worshippers were wounded and survived, and eight people who were inside the building escaped unharmed. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

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

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,” according to testimony. He also made antisemitic comments during the shooting and while receiving medical care indicated his desire to “kill Jews,” several first responders testified.

“I did this myself,” the shooter told responding officers, according to Stephen Mescan, a SWAT operator and tactical commander.

In addition, jurors were shown photos of bullet holes and bloodstains and listened to harrowing 911 calls from some of the victims and survivors as they hid from the gunman. Prosecutors in particular showed the jury a photo of a Jewish prayer book damaged with a bullet hole that Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said he planned to keep for posterity.

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

The mass shooting is part of a broader rise in antisemitism in recent years.

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.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Sarah Boxer and Laura Dolan contributed to this report.

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