By Sabrina Souza and Eric Levenson, CNN
(CNN) — Andrea Wedner, whose 97-year-old mother was killed, called the mass shooter “worthless” and a “pathetic human being.”
Carol Black cried out the name of her brother, Richard Gottfried, and said she feels guilt that somehow she survived, hidden in a dark closet, but her brother did not.
And Mark Simon, whose parents were killed, said he remains haunted by his mother’s blood-stained wedding pearls – but can’t bear to part with them.
“Your sick, vile despicable actions have totally erased you from humanity and society forever,” Simon said.
Wedner, Black and Simon were three of the nearly two dozen people expected to speak in federal court Thursday about the impact of the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest ever attack on Jews in the United States.
The hearing comes a day after a federal jury unanimously agreed to sentence the gunman, Robert Bowers, to death. It’s the first federal death sentence under the Biden administration, which has imposed a moratorium on executions.
About 22 people in all are expected to speak Thursday, and then Judge Robert Colville will deliver the formal sentence.
The victim impact statements and formal death sentence represent the capstone of a horrific saga that began on October 27, 2018, when Bowers burst into Tree of Life and shot people with an AR-15-style rifle. Eleven people were killed and six others, including four responding police officers, were wounded.
The people killed were Gottfried, 65; Simon’s parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86; Irving Younger, 69; Melvin Wax, 87; Rose Mallinger, 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Daniel Stein, 71; and the brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54.
Prosecutors argued the targeted, well-planned shooting – the deadliest-ever attack on Jewish people in the United States – was motivated by Bowers’ hatred toward the community. His defense argued that he suffered from mental illness and delusions, but the jury rejected those arguments in delivering the sentence.
The sentencing brings some finality to the long legal process, Audrey Glickman, who was leading a service at the time of the shooting, told CNN’s Danny Freeman.
“There really is nothing happy. There was a crime committed and there was a criminal sentenced,” Glickman said. “There is no happy in those two negatives, but the chapter is closed.”
Glickman called the gunman’s actions “evil.”
“It wasn’t just spraying bullets into people in a synagogue,” Glickman said Wednesday. “It was viciously murdering each individual up close and personal.”
What survivors have said of the verdict
During trial last month, some of the victims’ family members took the stand and shared heart-wrenching impact statements, with some breaking down in tears as they spoke about their loved ones.
Wedner, Mallinger’s daughter, said Wednesday the sentencing gave her a “great sense of relief.”
“People need to know if they’re going to harm somebody that they’re going to get punished for it, and this is telling the world that we’re not going to stand for this,” Wedner told CNN.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack at his Tree of Life congregation, said the jury decision represents the end of one chapter and the start of another.
“Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence, it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward,” he said in a statement. “As we do, I have my faith, bolstered by the embrace and respect with which my community has been treated by our government and our fellow citizens. For this and the seriousness with which the jury took its duty, I remain forever grateful.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the New Light Congregation acknowledged many of their members preferred the gunman spend the rest of his life in prison rather than receive the death penalty. However, co-presidents Stephen Cohen and Barbara Caplan agreed with prosecutors’ move.
“Life in prison without parole would allow the shooter to celebrate his deed for many years,” they wrote. “New Light Congregation accepts the jury’s decision and believes that, as a society, we need to take a stand that this act requires the ultimate penalty under the law.”
Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, a gun safety advocacy group founded by three members of Dor Hadash after the shooting, issued a statement on gun laws in the US.
“We hold responsible, not simply the shooter, a damaged and angry man who should never have had access to deadly weapons, but those politicians and legislators who have fought against common sense gun laws, having seen the overwhelming evidence that they would save lives, but too cowardly or too financially vested with the gun lobby to do the right thing,” the group said.
“We hold responsible every legislator and politician who has uttered hateful white nationalist rhetoric or has shared memes or other social media content amplifying the ‘great replacement theory,’ the unfounded conspiracy theory that a flood of non-white immigrants, organized by Jews, are coming to replace the white race. And we hold responsible those who continue to vote for such political candidates.”
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CNN’s Sarah Boxer contributed to this report.