The trial was over, we had witnessed the criminal being sentenced to death, and I was home, hand-washing a sweater that I had worn in the courtroom. I found myself squeezing hard, forcefully working the suds through the fabric, harder than necessary. It was cold in that courtroom, so cold that we wore sweaters, shawls and even blankets.
And we had breathed the same air as that criminal for months.
Those of us who witnessed what transpired on Oct. 27, 2018, were advised not to speak about the criminal, the case, or our feelings about the law until after the trial concluded, lest our testimony be impugned or the integrity of the proceedings be compromised.
Now freed from those constraints, I would like to address those who in the past four years presumed to speak for us.
You who advocated that the prosecution (who, by the way, represented the citizens of the United States, not just the victims) take the plea deal giving the criminal life in prison without a trial, would have deprived us of giving our testimony, of telling our stories for the record, of seeking justice in a participatory way.
You would have taken away our chance to understand the complete story, as presented by so many knowledgeable experts and professionals, in addition to the testimony given by the many witnesses, victims and first responders.
You said you didn’t want us to “relive the trauma.” That was painful to read. Those of us who were there have not stopped “living” it — it is with us forever. Telling the story on the record, making it public, was cathartic. Your mumbled misplaced assertion that you “don’t believe in the death penalty” made it that much worse. That you brought in Jewish thoughts on death sentences — which is not at all settled law — was the bitter icing.
The federal death penalty was in effect when the crime was committed, and the criminal knew the law when he planned and executed the massacre. Criminals should be tried to the penalties on the books.
One purpose of the death penalty is to ensure that the criminal is cut off from the rest of society — rather than living in what he would consider luxury, with room, board and health care paid for by taxpayers, access to TV and internet, and the opportunity to proselytize his hateful ideas to others.
This criminal murdered each of his victims at very close range, in the most horrid manner he could. He said he only regrets that he didn’t kill more Jews, and that given the chance, he would do so. He said he thought he deserved a parade and a medal for his efforts.
We know those tidbits and so much more because we had the trial. We know he “liked” a post on Gab that said, “Incinerate the Jews #DeathPenalty,” and we can take that as his tacit approval of the sentence.
We now know almost everything about that awful morning. Possibly the only thing we do not know is why the criminal locked eyes with Joe Charny and did not shoot him. Joe and I talked about how he looked down the barrel of the gun before escaping; it haunted him. (Joe, z”l, was eager to testify, but passed away early this year, without having the opportunity.)
It is good that we had this trial. It is good that the criminal will be housed away from others, with less opportunity to communicate his hatred, even if he is never executed. It is good to know that the United States stands behind us when we are attacked — that we stand behind anyone so attacked.
On Aug. 5, Tree of Life Congregation was honored at its Shabbat morning service by the presence of leaders and congregants of various faiths and traditions. It was “Shabbat in 60,” a shorter service which includes discussion of the parshah. Participating in that discussion were Bishop Ketlen A. Solak (Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh), Bishop David A. Zubik (Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh), Major Gregory Hartshorn (with Joyce Hartshorn, divisional leaders of The Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division), and various clergy of Jewish traditions as well. Such a blessing!
Do you see why I mention this? The service — like the trial — was a way of washing away the evil, of beginning to squeeze the detergent through our society until we are left with only the good.
Unless we get our collective hands dirty, and start scrubbing, together, we may never find peace. PJC
Audrey N. Glickman is the author of “POCKETS” and survived the Oct. 27, 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.