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Trial of 2018 accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter begins
02:47 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The final witness to testify in the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting trial said Wednesday she played dead and stayed by her dying mother’s side during the attack.

Andrea Wedner and her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the attack, were inside the synagogue that morning when they heard gunshots from the lobby area.

“My mother looked at me and said, ‘What do we do?’ in a very scared voice,” Wedner testified. “I said to my mother we have to get down.”

They got down on the ground, lying head to head. “We were filled with terror. It’s indescribable, we thought we were going to die,” she said.

She called 911, and the disturbing audio of that call was played in court without Wedner’s presence.

“Please help me. OK I can’t move. I’m afraid of where he could be,” she said. Loud shrieking followed. “He’s standing by me,” she said. A quiet crying noise can be heard in the background, followed by a long pause – pierced by loud shrieking and screaming. Heavy breathing can be heard until the end of the call.

In this courtroom sketch, shooting survivor Andrea Wedner testifies Wednesday in the federal death penalty trial of Robert Bowers.

Wedner was the last of 60 prosecution witnesses in the death penalty case, which began about three weeks ago. The defense did not call any witnesses, and the judge set closing arguments for Thursday.

The case stems from the mass shooting on October 27, 2018, in which Robert Bowers stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and killed 11 people and wounded six others.

Bowers, 50, has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death. If convicted of any of the capital charges, the trial will move to a separate penalty phase, in which the same jury will listen to further evidence and decide whether to sentence him to death.

Prosecutors argued Bowers carried out the shooting because of his hatred for Jewish people, citing a series of antisemitic comments before, during and after the mass shooting, online and in person. The gunman stated matter-of-factly, “All Jews had to die,” one responding officer testified.

Witnesses included survivors of the attack, law enforcement officers who engaged in a shootout with the gunman, and medical, firearms and computer experts.

Defense attorney Judy Clarke in opening statements did not deny Bowers was responsible for the attack but sought to raise questions about his intent and motivation. The defense has not cross-examined most witnesses.

‘I didn’t want him to know I was alive’

Robert Bowers is charged with the killing of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.

In her testimony, Wedner described the moment she was shot.

“I saw my right arm get blown open in two places and then my right hand, and the pain was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I looked at it as I felt it and it looked shredded wrongly and there was a lot of blood,” she testified.

She had cuts all over her body and face, and she had tissue hanging from her forehead, she said. With the wounds, she stayed on the ground motionless.

“I just laid on the floor and didn’t move in case he was there or was coming back. I didn’t want him to know I was alive,” she testified.

She felt her mother’s wrist for a pulse but it was very faint, and when she saw a piece of her mother’s denture sitting by her, she knew her mother was not going to survive. She stayed by her side.

“I wasn’t going to leave my mother and I didn’t know where he was,” she said.

She described the moment she said goodbye to her mother. “I kissed my fingers and I touched my fingers to her skin. I cried out mommy,” she added.

Wedner eventually was taken to the hospital, and she has since had three surgeries on her arm and skin grafts. She was in occupational therapy for a year and still has some difficulty with fine motor skills, she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Pittsburgh SWAT officer Timothy Matson testified about his injuries after he was shot by the gunman. He was one of four police officers injured.

Matson said he was shot in the leg and then in the head in his helmet, and on his tactical vest as well. The officer said he has undergone 25 procedures since the shooting and spent 16 weeks in the hospital.

“The bullet fractured my skull and my jaw,” he said. He also suffers some memory loss.

Even so, he said he would still make the same decision to be the first man to