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Trial begins for Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 in a Pittsburgh synagogue

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Trial is underway for the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh back in 2018.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Six people were also injured that day in what's considered to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The defendant is charged with 63 federal counts, including hate crimes.

MARTÍNEZ: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA was in court. Oliver, why is the trial just starting now, I mean, four years after the attack?

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Well, the trial was delayed in part because of COVID. And so that's had an impact because during interviews of potential jurors, which took about a month, many of the jurors couldn't even remember the very basic details of what happened. But they were sworn in yesterday. And they started to hear those details very quickly. The defense and prosecution both gave their opening arguments. And then we heard from a few of the witnesses, including some very graphic 911 phone calls.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what did the prosecution and the defense say in their opening statements?

MORRISON: So the prosecution basically laid the scene of what happened that day. They talked about the many congregants arriving at the synagogue and introduced them to the jury. And then they switched to talking about Robert Bowers and the many anti-Semitic comments that he had made online, talked about how he showed up and began hunting them. They argued that, you know, even though it was a tragedy, there were many acts of heroism from the witnesses that will be testifying during the trial. Now, the defense took a different tack. They didn't dispute that Bowers was the one that killed everyone. And they didn't even dispute that it was horrible. This didn't come as a total surprise because Bowers had tried to plead guilty in the trial in exchange for life in prison. But the prosecution rejected that effort. They want to seek the death penalty.

So the defense basically had two tacks that they tried. One was to say that it wasn't really a hate crime because Bowers wasn't trying to hurt Jews specifically. Bowers, right before he went in, had made a comment about a refugee resettlement group. One of the congregations at the Tree of Life synagogue had supported a refugee resettlement group. And so he was actually acting with animus towards the refugees, not towards Jews in particular. They also said that these kinds of statements and actions that didn't line up sort of were an example of the irrationality that they're hoping to prove during the course of the trial.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, has the jury heard from any witnesses?

MORRISON: Well, yeah, there were several witnesses. And one of them in particular made a big impact at the end of the day yesterday, the Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. Many of the people that were there that day were very elderly, so he helped them, like, lay down on the ground and get out of the shooting. And then he fled upstairs into a little bathroom. And in that bathroom, there was no lock on the door. So he called 911. And from that bathroom, he was just holding the door handle. And the gunshots were getting louder and louder. And so he was pretty convinced that his life was about to end.

And so he didn't want to call his wife because, you know, he didn't want to put her through that. So he decided what he should do is say a Jewish prayer to ask for forgiveness, especially for the congregants that day, who he thought might not have a chance to say the prayer themselves. So he was - you know, a vivid scene of him sort of gripping this doorknob, ready to fight if the shooter came in but just quietly accepting his fate and what he thought was going to happen.

MARTÍNEZ: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA. Oliver, thank you.

MORRISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Oliver Morrison