Over nearly five years, Rabbi Doris Dyen has listened to countless horror stories from those who, like her, survived the mass shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
As she listened, Ms. Dyen was also working through her own traumatic memory — of arriving at the Tree of Life synagogue and seeing broken glass on the sidewalk and then hearing the gunman, still inside, still firing. But with each story she heard, the collection of memories from that horrible day began to feel more disjointed, or as she put it, like “pieces of a puzzle that were just floating in goop.”
It was only as she sat through the intense, graphic and emotional trial testimony of the last nine weeks that the sequence of events began to take shape, she said in an interview on Wednesday, hours after 12 jurors unanimously decided that the gunman, Robert Bowers, should be sentenced to death.
As the pieces came together, Ms. Dyen said, it felt as if a roadblock had been lifted from the next stage of her life, allowing her — in some ways — to keep going.
“I’m looking at a road that’s open now, whereas for this last four and a half years there hasn’t been a path,” she said. “It’s just always been sort of waiting, waiting, waiting.”
Ms. Dyen’s dual description of the trial as extremely difficult to endure and a necessary accounting — “like this and that,” she said, holding out both hands, palms upward — echoed sentiments from others who survived the shooting or lost loved ones in it.
“We, too, didn’t know a lot of the details that the prosecution knew,” said Amy Mallinger, whose grandmother was killed in the shooting. “A lot of this we learned for the first time, sitting there. It was raw. It was real, and it’s hard to do.”
Many survivors said that the trial was an important part of a tragic story.
“The only thing positive about the sentencing of a criminal is that this long slog is over,” said Audrey Glickman, who had survived the shooting in part by hiding under a prayer shawl. “Had we not had this trial, the deeds of this criminal would have been glossed over in the annals of history. We now know, almost, the full story.”
Most families of the victims have said that they supported a death sentence, but some have been outspoken in their opposition to it. One, Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband was killed, said executing the gunman would be a “bitter irony” because her husband had been devoted to “the sanctity of life.”
Abraham Bonowitz, who is the executive director of anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Action and has written about his opposition to the death penalty in the Pittsburgh case from a Jewish perspective, said appeals were likely to drag the case on for years, “reopening wounds repeatedly.”
“Instead of fading to obscurity, this racist, antisemitic terrorist gains notoriety as a martyr for others who think like he does,” Mr. Bonowitz said.
But to Ms. Glickman, it was still the right decision. Sentencing Mr. Bowers to death, she said, was not only about executing him, but also about isolating him and his antisemitic views.
“The purpose of the death penalty is not so much punishing as cutting off a person from society, eliminating the evil, taking away the risk — the potential for infection and the possibility of further harm to citizens,” she said. “Even if he sits alive on death row for decades, he is separated from others.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, who hid in a bathroom to survive the shooting, said that many members of the community had been “stuck in neutral” as the case moved through the courts. “Now that the trial is nearly over and the jury has recommended a death sentence,” he said, “it is my hope that we can begin to heal and move forward.”
Many relatives of the victims gathered at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on Wednesday for a news conference where some teared up as they listened to each other’s reactions to the verdict. They said they were immensely grateful to the jurors who heard the evidence over the last two months and to the prosecutors who tried the case.
Earlier, in a hallway of the towering federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, sobs could be heard as families walked out of the courtroom.
Jean Clickner and her husband, Jon Pushinksy, who are members of the Dor Hadash congregation, one of three that was attacked inside the synagogue, kissed each other as they left the building.
Ms. Clickner, a lawyer, said she was against the death penalty in general but did not fault the jurors in this case.
“It’s a very personal decision, so it is what it is, and I am glad to have this part over with,” she said.
Campbell Robertson and Ruth Graham contributed reporting.