The community reacted quickly and with relief in many cases to the verdict Wednesday that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter will be sentenced to death for each of the 22 capital offenses he faced. The trial lasted more than three months, and the verdict came nearly five years after the crime, the worst antisemitic mass shooting in U.S. history.
About three hours afterward, the 10.27 Healing Partnership organized a news conference for the family members of victims and survivors to address the media at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill.
Hearing the verdict felt “surreal” to Amy Mallinger, the granddaughter of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was shot and killed by the defendant at the Tree of Life synagogue building on Oct. 27, 2018.
“It’s hard to say that it’s a good thing when you put somebody to death, but it is something that we have been striving to do because of the justice system and because of what we feel is right in this case,” she said in an interview.
Another aspect of the trial ending for Amy and her father, Stanley Mallinger, has been closing a chapter full of uncertainty to enter a new one. Stanley recalled constantly speculating about the specifics of the shooting before the trial had started.
Amy added that waiting for the verdict to arrive had taken her back to the day of the massacre when they’d waited to hear what had happened to Rose. “It feels really good to have that done and over with,” she added.
As they move forward from the trial, which they said was an emotionally draining process, Amy and Stanley have appreciated the opportunity to continue sharing memories of Rose. Amy said she felt she had to testify during the trial because “I wanted [the jury] to know who she was as a person, not just one of the 11 [who were killed].”
Rose grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Acmetonia, and her family owned a grocery store, Stanley said. He credits the candy behind the counter as the origin of her — and her whole family’s — sweet tooth. Now, whenever they have a family event, Amy’s aunt Andrea Wedner will bake a cookie tray and use Rose’s knife to cut the cookies.
Stanley and Amy added that Rose was “very sharp” despite her age, and that she loved “Jeopardy,” crosswords and word searches, once completing all of the puzzles that her local dollar store had to offer.
Now Amy and Stanley can look forward to rebuilding the Tree of Life, where Amy has been a lifelong member. Plans are in the works for a memorial that will be part of the building’s reconstruction.
Unlike in past renovations, which have tacked on several additions, the Tree of Life building will be completely redone — and it will encompass more than worship space alone.
“You need other things to contribute to a surviving organism of Judaism,” she said. “That’s something that they were very passionate about from the beginning is the longevity of it and trying to keep it alive for many years to come.”
When the Tree of Life reopens, Amy looks forward to holding her wedding at the synagogue. Her engagement ring, which she proudly displays, is Rose’s wedding ring.
About 50 survivors and relatives of those who were killed in the shooting spoke during the news conference and said that the jury’s decision to give the gunman the death penalty was appropriate.
And while the pain of Oct. 27, 2018, can never be fully healed and nothing can bring back their friends and loved ones, they have finally received some measure of justice.
“When a horrendous crime is committed, it deserves the most severe penalty,” said Carol Black, a shooting survivor and the sister of victim Richard Gottfried. “The current state of the law in the United States calls for the penalty that was decided upon by the jury, who worked tirelessly throughout this entire trial.”
In the years leading up to the trial there had been some public debate about whether the government should seek the death penalty. But those who were present at the news conference largely agreed that it was necessary for the prosecution to pursue capital punishment as a means to show that hate-based crime will not be tolerated.
“The purpose of the death penalty is not so much [about] punishing as [it is] cutting off the person from society, eliminating the evil, taking away the risk, the potential for infection and the possibility of further harm to citizens,” said Audrey Glickman, another shooting survivor. “Even if he sits alive on death row for decades, he is separated from others. Had he been sentenced to life in prison, he would have been comfortably in a room, all needs tended — a situation he has told examiners he enjoys.”
Survivors and relatives expressed gratitude to the prosecution team, the jury and District Judge Robert J. Colville, and many noted relief that the long trial was almost over, with the exception of the victim impact statements and the judge setting the sentence.
While the long, arduous trial included days of graphic photos and audio recordings as well as emotional and disturbing testimony, some said it was important to get that information into the public record.
“I found it very exhausting but also in an odd way comforting to hear what actually happened that day because not one of us had the full story,” said shooting survivor Rabbi Doris Dyen, who complimented the skill of the prosecutors. “Now we know it really did happen.”
Howard Fienberg, a son of shooting victim Joyce Fienberg, took time off from his job as a lobbyist for a trade association in the Washington, D.C., area so that he could attend the entire trial.
He said he felt “mostly relief” after Wednesday’s verdict “because we’ve been waiting for this for so long. It doesn’t close the book. You just move onto the next page. But it’s certainly a significant close of one chapter.”
Still, the path for the family to move on is uncertain, according to Fienberg and his brother, Anthony Fienberg, who came in from Paris to attend the trial.
“It’s actually not moving on because that would imply forgetting. It’s moving forward, and we’ve been doing that for 1,740 days,” Anthony Fienberg said. “Just because there’s a verdict doesn’t mean all of a sudden we’ve got the magic formula. It’s a day-by-day process.”
That process will continue. After the verdict, comments and statements flooded news outlets and social media.
Department of Justice officials weighed in as well, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray.
All praised the work of law enforcement, offered support to the community and promised to pursue similar hate-based cases as they arise.
“Hate crimes like this one inflict irreparable pain on individual victims and their loved ones and lead entire communities to question their very belonging,” Garland said in a statement. “All Americans deserve to live free from the fear of hate-fueled violence, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who perpetrate such acts.”
Wray said FBI agents “hold the Tree of Life synagogue victims and the Pittsburgh community in our hearts” and promised that the bureau will continue to protect communities from violent acts of hate.
“The damage caused by antisemitism cannot be understated,” he said, “just as the tragic loss of the 11 victims cannot be measured.”
Wray noted that healing will be a “lifelong journey” for the survivors and pledged support from the bureau, which was the lead agency on the investigation.
Eric Olshan, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh who was part of the prosecution team and delivered a resounding closing argument on Monday, said that Bowers’ antisemitic views “unfortunately are not original or unique to him.”
That comment echoed what he said in court in refuting the idea raised by the defense that Bowers was delusional because of those beliefs. Olshan argued they are not because so many others share them.
The region’s top prosecutor said the U.S. Constitution protects the right to hold “repugnant” beliefs. But it also protects the right to practice religion. Olshan said when white supremacists “pick up weapons” to kill or try to kill based on religious hatred, the U.S. attorney’s office and law enforcement will hold them accountable “each and every time.”
The three congregations attacked issued statements thanking the jury and others involved with the trial process for their service. Dor Hadash also lamented the public discourse that fosters hate, noting that the victims were targeted “because they were Jews.”
“Our public discourse in this country has shifted to allow antisemitism and white supremacy into the mainstream,” Dor Hadash’s statement read. “Our elected officials and the media need to combat white supremacist lies that the ‘white race’ is in danger of being replaced, and Jews are to blame. And easy access to guns allows hate-filled people to make their antisemitic beliefs deadly.
“Politicians, legislators, religious leaders and others in positions of power must recognize that their rhetoric has power and renounce such bigotry and hatred. We must all learn to recognize antisemitism, which can surface in a wide range of speech and conduct, and call it out each and every time we see it.”
Leaders of New Light acknowledged that not all of its members agreed with the verdict of death but said that, as a congregation, it agrees with “the government’s position that no one may murder innocent individuals simply because of their religion.”
“We take this position not out of a desire to seek revenge or to ‘even the score,’” New Light’s statement read, “but because we believe that the shooter crossed a line. Too often in the past — and not just the recent past — governments and religious authorities have looked away when murder and mayhem occurred against Jews. Too often in the past, these actions were sanctioned and championed by governmental authorities. Too often, perpetrators have been allowed to celebrate their depravity. Life in prison without parole would allow the shooter to celebrate his deed for many years. New Light Congregation accepts the jury’s decision and believes that, as a society, we need to take a stand that this act requires the ultimate penalty under the law.”
The president of Tree of Life, Alan Hausman, expressed gratitude for “all those who have helped our congregation these past four-plus years: the public safety department and law enforcement officers, our fellow Pittsburghers, and people of all faiths and backgrounds from across the country and around the world. While today’s decision is hard, it also marks the start of a new chapter at Tree of Life, and I find myself hopeful because of the love and support we still receive as we continue to heal and move forward.”
HIAS, the Jewish international humanitarian organization that resettles refugees in the U.S. (with the support of Dor Hadash) and helps refugees and displaced people in more than 20 other countries, noted that the shooting “targeted Jews, in part, for their support for welcoming refugees with dignity and compassion. Today’s sentencing marks the end of the judicial process, but this tragedy will forever be part of our story as an organization. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident, and it is important that violent extremism, antisemitism and hate not go unanswered. HIAS will continue to work with resolve and conviction for a more just society; we remain in solidarity with all communities targeted by hateful and xenophobic acts.”
In a prepared statement, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh reflected on “the strength and resilience of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and the entire community.”
“Although healing is not a linear process, together we have supported people in need of mental health services and ensured that we stay safe from harm. In the wake of the horrors of the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, our community neither retreated from participating in Jewish life nor suppressed our Jewishness. Instead, our community embraced our Jewish values — strengthening Jewish life, supporting those in need, and building a safer, more inclusive world.
“We will continue to help people through the long healing process and to honor those who were taken from us by remaining a proud, vibrant, visible, strong and connected Jewish community, now and for generations to come.” PJC
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle’s Toby Tabachnick, David Rullo and Adam Reinherz and the Pittsburgh Union Progress’ Torsten Ove all contributed.
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.