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Family members of Pittsburgh synagogue victims testify in sentencing phase: 'My life was turned upside down'

Widow of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victim testifies during sentencing phase of trial
Widow of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victim testifies during sentencing phase of trial 03:06

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Jurors returned to the courtroom Monday morning for the final phase of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial.

Last week, the jury determined that the convicted gunman Robert Bowers is indeed eligible for the death penalty.

In this final phase of the trial, the jury will hear testimony from family members. In approximately two to three weeks, the jury will be called to decide whether the gunman will be sentenced to life in prison or death.

Facing the jury, prosecutor Nicole Vasquez-Schmitt began her statement saying, "The defendant made the decision to kill and kill -- again, again and again -- 11 times. You found him guilty.  You found him eligible for the death penalty.  Now is the time to hold him accountable for his decision." 

Prosecutor Nicole Vasquez-Schmitt delivered her opening statements to the jury on Monday morning as the second part of the penalty phase got underway in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial. (Sketch by: Emily Goff)

The prosecution will present the impact of those decisions with the testimony of the family members of the victims. 

"You're going to learn how they lived, how they loved and how much they are missed by those who loved them," Vasquez said.

Instructing the jury, Judge Robert Colville said they must consider several aggravating factors against Bowers such as the impact on the victims' families, his injury to civilians and law enforcement, his defilement of a house of worship and his lack of remorse. 

Vasquez said the prosecution will put great weight on this lack of remorse. 

"The defendant said he wanted parades and medals. He was proud of what he had done. He told the defense's own doctor he was pleased but only wished he had killed more," she said.  

The defense will take an entire week to ask the jury to consider so-called mitigating factors, explaining the convicted gunman's actions, delving into his troubled childhood, a family history of violence and mental illness, and explore, again, his mental disorders, which they say impelled him to embrace -- and act upon -- wild conspiracy theories about Jews. 

Defense attorney Elisa Long delivers opening statements to the jury in the final phase of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial. (Sketch by: Emily Goff)

In her opening statement, defense attorney Elisa Long said, "We're not asking you to excuse what he did at the Tree of Life Synagogue. He should be punished, but do so by voting for life and by asserting that new death is not necessary. Life in prison is considerable punishment, and by voting for life, you will punish him and hold him accountable." 

In the wake of her husband Richard Gottfried's murder, Margaret Durachko testified, "My life was turned upside down. He was my whole family. We never had children so he was my whole family, and it was wiped out in a second." 

Durachko was one of the first of more than 20 family members of the 11 synagogue victims expected to testify in the sentencing phase of the trial. 

Carol Black (left), the sister of Richard Gottfried, and Margaret Durachko (right), the widow of Richard Gottfried, talk about the impact of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting during the final phase of the trial on July 17, 2023.  (Photo: Emily Goff)

Married for 38 years, Durachko and Gottfried were partners in a dental practice and often donated their time working in Catholic Charities' dental clinic. She described her husband as a kind, generous, smart and athletic man who loved to play golf, softball and ping pong. She said he had a passion for travel and fine wine, and his motto was "do it while you can". 

 "He would say: 'We're going to do this while we can' and I was so glad he said that, because we did a lot while we could. We thought we'd do a lot more, but at least I have those memories," she said. 

The prosecution showed a picture of Gottfried at the Parthenon in Greece only months after he had a debilitating injury to both of his knees. A yearly participant in the city of Pittsburgh Great Race, the government showed another picture of husband and wife crossing the finish line. 

Durachko's voice cracked when she said: "That's it. We were united, and he ran every step." 

They were two grown men but throughout Squirrel Hill, Cecil and David Rosenthal were known simply as "the boys." 

Taking the stand, Diane Rosenthal, the sister of the brothers, testified that when they were diagnosed early with fragile X syndrome, her parents insisted they be raised at home with her and her sister Michelle rather than be put in an institution.  

"It wasn't easy," she said. "There were a lot of challenges as you can imagine. Sometimes I was ashamed, but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to our family." 

The boys, she said, were a gift with an infectious joy for life which they spread throughout the neighborhood. 

"These boys taught us way more -- even with their poor IQ -- they taught us way more than we could ever teach them," she said. "They were the glue that kept our family together. There's just a huge hole in our hearts." 

Testifying on videotape, Cecil and David Rosenthal's mother said she thanks God for her sons and couldn't be more proud to be their mother but now they are gone. 

"A big part of me died on Oct. 27, 2018. My boys were taken from me. I woke up with two loving sons and went to bed with only memories," she said.

Cecil and David Rosenthal's family testifies during sentencing phase in Pittsburgh synagogue trial 02:40

In finding that the gunman is eligible for the death penalty, the jury agreed with the government that Bowers acted out of ethnic hatred rather than mental illness and delusion when he shot and killed 11 worshippers from three different congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light on Oct. 27, 2018. It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.  Last month, Bowers was found guilty of all 63 federal charges in the attack. 

The three synagogue congregations are divided on whether the death penalty should be imposed as are some of the victims' families. But Jewish leaders said all are thankful for the jury's decision and look forward to testifying about the impact of the attack in the final sentencing phase of the trial.   

Recapping the eligibility phase of the trial

During the eligibility portion of the penalty phase, Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz testified that Bowers was not schizophrenic and not driven by mental illness when he murdered 11 innocent victims in October 2018.

Dr. Deitz began his testimony saying the suspect knowingly and willingly killed those 11 people. 

Earlier testimony in the penalty phase consisted of medical experts being called to the stand surrounding the gunman's diagnoses of epilepsy and schizophrenia, while prosecutors challenged those diagnoses.

Other testimony included psychiatric reports, examination notes, and IQ analysis all surrounding the mental state of the accused gunman. 

Support is available for those in need during the trial

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health effects from the trial, go to to find help resources. As always, call 911 to report threats. 

Phone: 412-697-3534

More resources can be found here.

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