After final day of victim testimony, synagogue killer formally sentenced to death
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10/27 TrialSeveral victims noted that the killer has no remorse

After final day of victim testimony, synagogue killer formally sentenced to death

The defendant had the right to address the court but said nothing.

A view of the Tree of Life synagogue, which housed three congregations, New Light, Dor Hadash and Tree of Life, photographed Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)
A view of the Tree of Life synagogue, which housed three congregations, New Light, Dor Hadash and Tree of Life, photographed Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

A day after a federal court jury imposed the death penalty on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, U.S. District Judge Robert Colville formally sentenced him Thursday before a packed tense courtroom.

“I sentence you, Robert Bowers, to the penalty of death by execution,” the judge said.

Colville chose not to make any statements to the hate-filled killer who had slaughtered 11 innocent people nearly five years ago.

He said others have already spoken more eloquently and nothing he could say to the defendant would be meaningful.

“There is very little I could add,” he said.

The defendant, dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, had the right to address the court but said nothing.

U.S. marshals led him away.

The United States of America v. Robert Bowers has finally ended after two months of exhausting testimony.

The final day saw more of the same as 22 people read victim impact statements about what the defendant did to their families on Oct. 27, 2018, when he rampaged through the Tree of Life synagogue building with an AR-15 and slaughtered elderly and disabled worshippers.

It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.

Thursday was the day for the victims to finally address the court. While many family members had already testified at length during the trial, they had the right to be heard at sentencing under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

Normally victims testify in order to persuade a judge to impose a harsher sentence than the defense is requesting. That wasn’t the case this time — death was the only option.

One by one, the victims delivered their statements. Some addressed the shooter directly, despite a request by the defense to speak to the judge only.

They all described ongoing despair and lingering trauma from that day.

Several barely controlled their rage.

All the while, the killer sat at the defense table scribbling on a pad, as he has throughout the trial, avoiding eye contact with anyone.

Andrea Wedner, whom the shooter wounded while killing her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, recounted how Pittsburgh Police officer Daniel Mead had described himself on the stand as a “worthless piece of s—” after one of the defendant’s bullets had shattered his hand.

“Sitting in this room,” Wedner said, “is the true worthless piece of s—.”

She referred to the man in red “prison clothes” but would not use his name.

The family of Cecil and David Rosenthal, mentally challenged brothers whom the defendant gunned down, took a confrontational approach.

Michael Hirt, a brother-in-law, said the defendant had not been “man enough” to look at any of the victims during the trial. Hirt then asked if he was man enough to look at him now, with sentencing upon him, and stared down the shooter from across the silent courtroom.

The defendant, as always, never looked up.

“That’s what I thought,” Hirt said.

Another brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, pointed to the fact that the killer considered himself a “soldier” in his war of hatred against Jews. Kennedy held up his decorations for service in Vietnam and asked what the defendant’s grandfather, a World War II soldier who had seen a Nazi concentration camp, would think of his “soldier” grandson.

Others were filled with similar fury against a man who carefully planned his attack for six months and then opened fire on the helpless and the vulnerable because of their religion.

Marc Simon, whose parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, died by the gunman’s bullets, said he felt guilt for not being able to protect them from “that defendant,” again not using his name.

He said he still has his father’s blood-soaked prayer shawl and his mother’s blood-stained strand of pearls, constant reminders of the day the killer hunted down and murdered his beloved parents with his “high-powered assault rifle” in the same chapel where they had been married 62 years before.

He noted that the shooter has never shown any remorse.

“You still maintain to this very day that you only wished you had killed more,” he said.

In addressing the judge, Simon said, “Give that defendant exactly what he deserves: no mercy.”

Carol Black, sister of victim Richard Gottfried, recounted watching the defendant shoot Melvin Wax at point-blank range and thanked the police for rescuing her. The shooter, she said, “is a burden not only on society but to we the taxpayers” as he sits in jail. She rejected the defense argument that his chaotic childhood was a reason to spare him, saying many people have had bad upbringings.

“Please remember his utter lack of remorse,” she told the judge.

Several police officers testified as well. One of them, Jonathan Craig, had seen his good friend shot by the defendant during one of two gunfights in the synagogue. He said he had to restrain himself from killing the shooter after he crawled out of his hiding place and was taken into custody.

Some of those who spoke offered messages of defiance and hope in the face of rising antisemitism in America.

Alan Mallinger, son of Rose Mallinger, said his mother was murdered by a “monster filled with hate” but would not detail the anguish his family has suffered because he knew the killer would enjoy that. He said his family and his religious community will rebound.

“The synagogue will be rebuilt; the joy that you took away will be reclaimed,” he said. “We have suffered for thousands of years before you came along but we will continue to do so long after you have been killed. … We are angrier and stronger than ever.”

The Rosenthals also issued a note of defiance — and a measure of revenge.

The shooter targeted the Tree of Life building because Dor Hadash, one of the congregations that was housed there, supports HIAS, an immigrant aid organization.

The Rosenthals said that each Oct. 27, they will make a donation to HIAS in the killer’s name and have the acknowledgement sent to him in prison. PJC

Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress. He can be reached at jtorsteno@gmail.com. This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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