PITTSBURGH (JTA) — Defense attorneys in the trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter will not be calling witnesses or presenting evidence in court, following 11 days of harrowing testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution.
The defense attorneys’ choice underscores their acknowledgement that their client committed the attack. Since the beginning of the trial, lead defense attorney Judy Clarke has made clear that her goal is to prevent the shooter, Robert Bowers, from being sentenced to death.
Judge Robert Colville dismissed the jury on Wednesday and told jurors to return on Thursday to hear closing arguments, after which the jury will deliberate and deliver its verdict. The defendant is almost certain to be found guilty, and his sentence — which will be determined in the next phase of the trial — will depend on whether the jury finds him guilty on all 63 counts he faces or just some of them. Of those charges, 22 carry the death penalty — two for each of his 11 victims.
The anticlimactic conclusion of the proceedings on Wednesday followed 11 days of graphic testimony from congregants and emergency responders who were present when the gunman perpetrated the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Oct. 27, 2018. The synagogue he attacked housed three congregations: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash.
Witnesses have described how the shooting unfolded, detail by tragic detail — and have explained the Jewish rituals and practices interrupted and desecrated by the attack. Other witnesses, including 911 call center employees and law enforcement, have recounted how they responded to the shooting.
Clarke and her team have cross-examined witnesses but revealed on Thurday that they would not be calling any of their own.
“We have no evidence,” Clarke said after Colville turned to her following the prosecution’s last witness. In her opening remarks on May 30, Clark had said that the defense team would not contest that its client committed the shooting.
“There is no disagreement, there is no dispute and there will be no doubt as to who shot the 11 congregants,” she said then. “On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, the man seated at that table, loaded with ammunition and firearms entered the synagogue.”
Clarke is famous for keeping her clients off of death row and hopes to achieve the same result here. Her argument to jurors is that her client targeted the congregants not because of their religion, but because of a delusion that they were facilitating an immigration invasion to replace white people.
“We can at least do our best to uphold the rule of law by figuring out, to the best of our ability, what were Mr. Bowers’ motives and intent,” Clarke said in her opening statement.
The prosecution wrapped up its case before lunch on Wednesday with testimony from Andrea Wedner, one of two worshippers who were injured by gunfire in the shooting and survived. Wedner was with her mother, Rose Mallinger, when the gunman entered the chapel. Mallinger, who was 97, was killed in the attack.
Acting U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti asked Wedner if the gunman had kept her from worshipping — the same question the prosecution has posed to other survivors who took the stand.
That question is key to half of the 22 capital charges the gunman faces: Federal law allows the death penalty in cases “of obstruction in free exercise of religious belief resulting in death.” The other 11 capital charges are for hate crimes resulting in death.
“Did you go there to worship and pray?” Rivetti asked Wedner. “Did the defendant prevent you from praying? Did the defendant come into the chapel and shoot you? Your mother, Rose Mallinger, who prayed the prayer for peace each week, was shot right next to you?”
Wedner answered “Yes” each time, with increasing emotion.
The defense rarely objected during the trial, only doing so to argue that testimony was inappropriately veering into how American Jews worship, or into what animates Jewish practice. Nearly all of the defense’s objections during the trial were overruled.
After the jury exited the courtroom on Wednesday, the defense continued arguing that their client did not seek to kill Jews while they worshipped. Speaking before the judge, defense attorneys raised objections to the phrasing of some of the charges the jury would consider.
They tried, as they had previously, to have the words “willfully” and “because of actual or perceived religion” removed from the 11 capital charges that have to do with obstruction of worship resulting in death. Colville overruled the objections.
Wedner asked not to be on the stand when the prosecution played back her 911 call from the day of the shooting in court. Instead, Rivetti asked her a series of questions about the call before she left the chamber.
“Have you actually requested that we not play that 911 call while you’re on the stand?” Rivetti asked.
“Yes,” Wedner said.
“Is that because you can hear yourself being shot?”
“Is it because you can hear your mother’s quiet voice as you try to comfort her?”
“Is it because you can hear her being shot?”
“Yes.” Wedner’s voice cracked.
The recording of the call played out as Rivetti had described: Werner’s whispered pleadings to a 911 operator, silence, and then two gun blasts and screams. Rivetti stopped the replay about halfway through the 9-minute recording.
During her testimony, Wedner described sensing police were in the sanctuary, and moving her legs to signal she was alive. “They were in fatigues so I knew they were the good guys,” she said.
She rose and realized she was the lone survivor in the sanctuary where the Tree of Life congregation regularly convened.
Before she left, she bid her mother goodbye.
“I kissed my fingers and I touched my fingers to her skin,” she said. “I cried out, ‘Mommy.’”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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