A survivor of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre said Wednesday that she saw her right arm “get blown open in two places” by a gunman and cried “Mommy” after realizing her 97-year-old mother had been shot and killed by her side in the nation’s deadliest attack on Jewish people.
Andrea Wedner was the government’s last witness as prosecutors wrapped up their case against Robert Bowers, who burst into the Tree of Life synagogue building with a military-style rifle and other weaponry and opened fire, shooting anyone he could find.
Bowers killed 11 worshippers and injured seven other people, including five police officers, in the 2018 attack. The 50-year-old truck driver is charged with 63 criminal counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and the obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death.
Bowers’ attorneys did not put on a defense after the prosecution rested, setting the stage for closing arguments and jury deliberations on Thursday.
Assuming the jury returns a conviction, the trial would enter what’s expected to be a lengthy penalty phase, with the same jurors deciding Bowers' sentence: life in prison or the death penalty. Bowers' attorneys, who have acknowledged he was the gunman, have focused their efforts on trying to save his life.
Federal prosecutors ended their case against Bowers on Wednesday with some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking testimony of the trial so far.
Wedner told jurors that Sabbath services had started five or 10 minutes earlier when she heard a crashing sound in the building's lobby, followed by gunfire. She said her mother, Rose Mallinger, asked her, “What do we do?”
Wedner said she had a “clear memory” of the gunman and his rifle.
“We were filled with terror — it was indescribable. We thought we were going to die,” she said.
Wedner called 911 and was on the line when she and her mother were shot. She testified that she checked her mother’s pulse and realized, “I knew she wouldn’t survive.” As SWAT officers entered the chapel, Wedner said, she kissed her fingers and touched them to her dead mother, cried “Mommy,” and stepped over another victim on her way out. She said she was the sole survivor in that section of the synagogue.
Her account capped a prosecution case in which other survivors also testified about the terror they felt that day, police officers recounted how they exchanged gunfire with Bowers and finally neutralized him, and jurors heard about Bowers' toxic online presence in which he praised Hitler, espoused white supremacy and ranted incessantly against Jews.
The defense has suggested Bowers acted not out of religious hatred but rather a delusional belief that Jews were enabling genocide by helping immigrants settle in the United States.
Also testifying Wednesday was Pittsburgh SWAT Officer Timothy Matson, who was critically wounded while responding to the rampage.
He told jurors that he and another officer broke down the door to the darkened room where Bowers had holed up and was immediately knocked off his feet by blasts from Bowers' gun. Matson, who stands 6 foot 4 and weighed 310 pounds at the time of the shooting, said he made his way to the stairs and was placed on a stretcher, and remembers thinking, “I must be in bad shape.”
Matson was shot seven times, including in the head, knee, shin and elbow, and has endured 25 surgeries to repair the damage, but he testified he would go through the door again.