After stepping over dead bodies sprawled throughout the Tree of Life synagogue building, Pittsburgh Police SWAT officer Michael Saldutte made his way to the third floor and opened a door to a dark room.
His fellow officer, Tim Matson, entered ahead of him and immediately fell to the ground.
Saldutte saw Matson’s pants “poofing” as bullets hit his legs. He heard no gunshots in the moment because his auditory system hadn’t yet registered what was happening, he told a jury on Monday, but he saw muzzle flashes in the darkness.
A shooter who had just rampaged through the synagogue was now holed up and firing at police with a semiautomatic rifle in the pitch blackness.
Saldutte threw himself on top of Matson to shield him with his body armor and then opened fire on each muzzle flash as the shooter moved from left to right.
“I began shooting at it as it moved across the room,” he said.
But then he ran out of ammo. He could no longer protect his friend or himself. Another officer had since entered the room, but Saldutte had to crawl away.
“That,” he said, “was probably one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Saldutte was testifying Monday as the second week began in the federal trial of Robert Bowers.
The Baldwin trucker is accused of murdering 11 helpless worshippers on Oct. 27, 2018. The motive, prosecutors say, was hatred of Jews.
The Justice Department is seeking death. Bowers’ team of lawyers is hoping to convince the jury to spare him and send him to prison for life.
During the guilt phase of the trial, the defense team is not arguing that Bowers didn’t do it, only that the government be put through its paces to prove the specific hate-related crimes with which he is charged.
Last week numerous witnesses described that October morning as Bowers stormed the building with an AR-15 and gunned down elderly worshippers from three congregations on various levels of the labyrinthine building.
Monday morning’s testimony focused on crime scene photos and police testimony related to what the SWAT officers saw and heard as they tried to rescue survivors and engage the gunman.
Prosecutors showed photos of the dead inside the entrance to the building, on a set of steps and in a basement kitchen.
The photos became a topic of dispute before the jury arrived.
Although U.S. District Judge Robert Colville had already ruled that they would be admitted as evidence, rejecting a defense motion to bar them, the defense lawyers renewed their objection before testimony began on Monday.
Their contention is that gruesome death scenes images, 14 in all, will elicit an emotional response from the jurors and prejudice them against the defendant.
As they did in prior court briefings, prosecutors rejected that argument.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said it was “specious” to say the photos aren’t evidentiary because she said they are necessary for the government to prove the defendant’s motive, his use of force, his weaponry and the wounds and deaths he caused.
Defense lawyers had objected to the need for so many photos to be shown to the jury, but Song said that number was necessary too — because of what Bowers did.
“Part of the reason there are so many is that the defendant killed 11 people,” she said.
The judge sided with the government. Yes, the photos are graphic, he said, “but they’re relevant.”
The jury will see them as well as autopsy photos at a later point in the trial.
Testimony continued Monday afternoon with accounts from police medics.
The trial is expected to last into July. PJC
Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.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.