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Final witness in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial says she played dead next to her 97-year-old mother

Published May 21, 2023 By admin
CNN — 

The final witness to testify in the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting trial said Wednesday she played dead and stayed by her dying mother’s side during the attack.Andrea Wedner and her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the attack, were inside the synagogue that morning when they heard gunshots from the lobby area.

“My mother looked at me and said, ‘What do we do?’ in a very scared voice,” Wedner testified. “I said to my mother we have to get down.”

They got down on the ground, lying head to head. “We were filled with terror. It’s indescribable, we thought we were going to die,” she said. She called 911, and the disturbing audio of that call was played in court without Wedner’s presence. “Please help me. OK I can’t move. I’m afraid of where he could be,” she said. Loud shrieking followed. “He’s standing by me,” she said. A quiet crying noise can be heard in the background, followed by a long pause – pierced by loud shrieking and screaming. Heavy breathing can be heard until the end of the call.

Wedner was the last of 60 prosecution witnesses in the death penalty case, which began about three weeks ago. The defense did not call any witnesses, and the judge set closing arguments for Thursday. The case stems from the mass shooting on October 27, 2018, in which Robert Bowers stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and killed 11 people and wounded six others.

Bowers, 50, has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death. If convicted of any of the capital charges, the trial will move to a separate penalty phase, in which the same jury will listen to further evidence and decide whether to sentence him to death.

Prosecutors argued Bowers carried out the shooting because of his hatred for Jewish people, citing a series of antisemitic comments before, during and after the mass shooting, online and in person. The gunman stated matter-of-factly, “All Jews had to die,” one responding officer testified.

Witnesses included survivors of the attack, law enforcement officers who engaged in a shootout with the gunman, and medical, firearms and computer experts. Defense attorney Judy Clarke in opening statements did not deny Bowers was responsible for the attack but sought to raise questions about his intent and motivation. The defense has not cross-examined most witnesses.

‘I didn’t want him to know I was alive’

In her testimony, Wedner described the moment she was shot.

“I saw my right arm get blown open in two places and then my right hand, and the pain was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I looked at it as I felt it and it looked shredded wrongly and there was a lot of blood,” she testified.

She had cuts all over her body and face, and she had tissue hanging from her forehead, she said. With the wounds, she stayed on the ground motionless.

“I just laid on the floor and didn’t move in case he was there or was coming back. I didn’t want him to know I was alive,” she testified.

She felt her mother’s wrist for a pulse but it was very faint, and when she saw a piece of her mother’s denture sitting by her, she knew her mother was not going to survive. She stayed by her side.

“I wasn’t going to leave my mother and I didn’t know where he was,” she said.

She described the moment she said goodbye to her mother. “I kissed my fingers and I touched my fingers to her skin. I cried out mommy,” she added.

Wedner eventually was taken to the hospital, and she has since had three surgeries on her arm and skin grafts. She was in occupational therapy for a year and still has some difficulty with fine motor skills, she said. Earlier Wednesday, Pittsburgh SWAT officer Timothy Matson testified about his injuries after he was shot by the gunman. He was one of four police officers injured. Matson said he was shot in the leg and then in the head in his helmet, and on his tactical vest as well. The officer said he has undergone 25 procedures since the shooting and spent 16 weeks in the hospital.

“The bullet fractured my skull and my jaw,” he said. He also suffers some memory loss.

Even so, he said he would still make the same decision to be the first man to enter the Tree of Life synagogue again. “Absolutely, I’d go through the door with my team again anytime,” he testified.

How the attack unfolded

On the day of the shooting, the synagogue was hosting three congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, for weekly Shabbat services.

Armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, Bowers shot out a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to testimony. He was shot multiple times by police and ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody.

Four police officers who responded to the scene were wounded. Two worshippers were wounded and survived, and eight people who were inside the building escaped unharmed. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years.

For years before the shooting, Bowers posted attacks on immigrants and Jewish people on Gab, a small social media platform used by far-right extremists. He particularly criticized migrants as “invaders” and repeatedly disparaged the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which provides support to refugees.

Minutes before storming inside the building, Bowers logged onto Gab and wrote, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” according to testimony. He also made antisemitic comments during the shooting and while receiving medical care indicated his desire to “kill Jews,” several first responders testified.

“I did this myself,” the shooter told responding officers, according to Stephen Mescan, a SWAT operator and tactical commander.

In addition, jurors were shown photos of bullet holes and bloodstains and listened to harrowing 911 calls from some of the victims and survivors as they hid from the gunman. Prosecutors in particular showed the jury a photo of a Jewish prayer book damaged with a bullet hole that Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said he planned to keep for posterity.

“It’s a witness to the horror of the day,” Myers testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”

The mass shooting is part of a broader rise in antisemitism in recent years.

This is only the second federal death penalty case to be prosecuted under the Biden administration. In the first case, the terrorist who drove a U-Haul truck into cyclists and pedestrians on a New York City bike path was sentenced to life in prison after the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision for death.

At the same time, the Biden administration has put a moratorium on federal executions. Under the Trump administration, 13 death row inmates were executed over a six-month period from July 2020 to January 2021. Previously, there had been no federal executions in nearly two decades.


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