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 who spoke 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 gunman, Robert Bowers, 50, did not look up from a piece of paper for any of their statements. Afterward, Judge Robert Colville formally sentenced him to death on 22 capital counts, 37 life sentences and 20 years each on four additional counts.
The hearing came a day after a federal jury unanimously agreed to sentence Bowers to death. It’s the first federal death sentence under the Biden administration, which has imposed a moratorium on executions.
The sentencing represents the capstone of a horrific saga that began on October 27, 2018, when Bowers burst into the Tree of Life synagogue 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 was motivated by Bowers’ hatred toward Jews, immigrants and particularly the non-profit organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society His defense argued that he suffered from mental illness and delusions, but the jury rejected those arguments in delivering the sentence.
In recognition of the gunman’s hateful ideology, Michele Rosenthal, the sister of the Rosenthal brothers, pledged on Thursday that every October 27 her family will make a donation to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The donation will be made in Bowers’ name, and she planned to mail him the receipt, she said.
Survivors and victims’ families speak out
The first of the victim impact statements was from Peg Durachko, Gottfried’s wife. She said she was “repulsed” by the gunman’s “callous disregard” for her husband.
“Rich was the most important person in my life, my whole family. Your hateful act took my soulmate away from me (and) left me totally alone,” she said.
Alan Mallinger, Mallinger’s son, said they should have been planning a 100th birthday party but instead were forced to plan her funeral.
“You may think you took away our fight and determination, but you only fueled it,” he said. “Because of my mother, Rose, we will continue to thrive as Jewish people.”
Officer Michael Smidga, one of the officers injured in the attack, said he had “a hard time handling the rage and the sadness for these victims and families.”
“For him to just do what he did it just doesn’t make sense,” he added.
Rabbi Doris Dyen, a survivor of the shooting, said the gunman had challenged her opposition to the death penalty.
“In my opinion he has forfeited the privilege of living because his actions have shown he doesn’t appreciate life,” she said. “He not only killed 11 people of blessed memory and severely injured others, but he also took a sense of safety.”
Dan Leger, who was wounded in the shooting, thanked the law enforcement officers who ran toward the danger and the government prosecutors who took on the case. He even thanked the defense lawyers “for valuing the sanctity of life, even if their client doesn’t,” he said.
“I can only wish Mr. Bowers would look at me while I’m talking instead of scribbling on his page,” he said.
Michael Hirt, the brother-in-law of the Rosenthals, challenged Bowers to make eye contact and paused for about 30 seconds. Bowers did not look up.
“I wonder now if you’re man enough now to look at us,” he said. “I didn’t think so.”
Sentence is end of one chapter
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.