The verdict in the trial of the man who shot and killed 11 members of three synagogues all housed in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, did not bring closure to the victims or their families.
But it did bring relief.
For the last four years and nine months, residents of Squirrel Hill and members of the Jewish community had the trial looming over their heads and had repeatedly asked each other “Are they ever going to try that guy?”
The three-phase trial, which began in late May, lasted for nine weeks. In previous phases, the jury found the shooter guilty of 63 counts, including 22 capital counts, then ruled that he was eligible for the death penalty. On Wednesday, Aug. 2, the jury returned its verdict that the shooter, Richard Bowers, 50, should be put to death rather than spend the rest of his life in prison.
“It was just a feeling of relief, not with the sentence, but just that there was an outcome,” said Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, the former executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, who has served as the voice of the Squirrel Hill community during commemorations and to the media.
Bairnsfather notes that the neighborhood was deeply divided over whether the shooter should be sentenced to life in prison or death, but there was unanimity in the sense that “everybody just wants some type of end to the story.”
Earlier in the process, two of the three congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light, asked the U.S. Department of Justice, which was prosecuting the case, to accept a guilty plea and allow Bowers to spend the rest of his life in prison in order to avoid a lengthy trial that would retraumatize the victims.
“It wasn’t so much that we were opposed to the death penalty, we were opposed to a trial,” said Stephen Cohen, president of New Light Congregation.
Now, Cohen added, he was wrong about that.
Cohen explained that the trial answered questions that many of the victims had about the attack and about the man who attacked them.
Without the trial, he said, “we never would have known the depth of his hatred.”
Cohen said he had believed the attack on worshipers stopped once the police arrived, not realizing that the shooter ran back in and killed more people in the Pervin Chapel where the Tree of Life congregation had assembled.
“He didn’t see them as people. He saw them as targets.”
The worshipers killed in the attack were Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; and his brother David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; and her husband Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. Two other worshipers were shot and injured and five police officers were injured.
Cohen said his congregation is divided on whether the shooter should have been sentenced to death, but the trial, he noted, was important.
“This is a chapter of a book that as of [the official sentencing on Thursday] the chapter is closed. The book isn’t over.”
After the verdict, survivors of the attack and the relatives of the victims who were killed gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill for a press conference. It was the first time the survivors and the relatives of the victims have been able to publicly speak about the trial and they thanked the community for the support, as well as U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan and the jury, whose members gave up their time for nine weeks to sit through the trial and then consider the evidence. They also thanked the members of the media for giving them a voice in the story.
“This morning when we heard the verdict, the thought that came to my mind was ‘baruch dayan emet’ ‘blessed is the judge of truth’ or ‘blessed is the true judge,’” said Rabbi Doris Dyen, formerly the rabbi for Dor Hadash and a survivor of the shooting.
She then added, “This is a sentence that we say at a funeral. But we were not at a funeral this morning, but we had to, our community, our society, had to commit the life of another human being to death because of what that person did to others’ lives. And I had found myself feeling relieved, very relieved, and sad at what needed to happen. And yet there can be situations in which someone forfeits the right to live in society because they didn’t respect life themselves.”
When asked what they would do on Thursday, Aug. 3, Audrey Glickman, a survivor of the attack, said they would be back in court delivering their victim impact statements before the shooter is formally sentenced by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville.
After that, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said, “We can’t answer what that next page is going to be. But ask us in a year and we can answer what does that chapter now look like, because we can’t answer that right now; we’re still writing that book.”