After sitting in a federal courtroom day after day for nine weeks, Howard Fienberg was happy to be heading home to his northern Virginia suburb last Friday.
The trial was finally over, and the man who murdered his mother, Joyce Fienberg, and 10 other Jews in the Tree of Life building had been sentenced to death.
While it wasn’t easy being away from his wife and daughter, and his job as a lobbyist, Fienberg wanted his family to be represented at the trial, he said, so he acquiesced to being “in the presence of this great evil” for most of the summer.
“The worst part is that when you’re in the courtroom, you’re sitting within spitting distance of the monster,” Fienberg said. “And he’s not there looking back at you saying, ‘So sorry about all this, I regret what I did,’ or anything like that. He’s doodling or drawing or taking notes — who the hell knows what he’s doing — writing a manifesto, I don’t know. But he was certainly not looking at us, even when we were on the stand or when we were sitting behind him on the benches. He didn’t care.”
The murderer — convicted in June on 63 federal counts and sentenced on Aug. 3 after several weeks of penalty phase evidence — seemed disinterested in the testimony of the survivors and family members of the victims, Fienberg said.
“The only thing he was interested in was talking to the defense team, and they would come over and pat him on the back,” Fienberg said. “And, yeah, they’d share a few laughs. But you’re always in the presence of this great evil — and evil’s defense team.”
While it was hard to be there, Fienberg kept coming.
“Even if the monster doesn’t care, my family does,” he said.
While being so close to the man who murdered his mother was the most difficult aspect of attending the trial daily, there were inconveniences as well — such as not having access to personal electronics. Only attorneys and court personnel are allowed to bring those devices into court.
“The inability to have electronics is kind of crippling in many respects,” Fienberg said. “I’m used to being able to stay in communication with people in the outside world, and you can’t do that, no matter what the need is. And, if I could have sat there with my laptop, I could have actually worked and contributed to my job while I was spending all this time in court, but that wasn’t exactly an option.”
Since the massacre, Fienberg always has his phone nearby. One lesson learned from the events of Oct. 27, 2018, he said, is “if something happens, if there’s an emergency, you need to have a lifeline, and every second counts.”
Because he could not bring his laptop into court, he did what work he could on paper during the trial’s downtimes.
He also recorded the trial through extensive handwritten notes.
“I am going to save them and refer to them when I need to remember something specific,” Fienberg said. “Memory is fallible. As much as it would be nice to just forget everything, I don’t want to.”
The notes also will serve as a record for others who may want to know what happened. Fienberg’s teenage daughter, for example, “has kept a very safe distance away from everything that’s related to Mom’s killing,” he said. “She’s well aware of it, and what happened, and that’s enough. … But she’s been careful to keep away from it, and she tunes us out completely whenever the subject comes up. So someday that will change. And I want to be able to tell her as much as she wants to know.”
Before the trial, there was a lot that Fienberg didn’t know about that day.
“I knew some basic things, and that was about it,” he said. One of the most surprising things he learned “was what happened to and with all of the cops in SWAT.”
“Because I had been avoiding learning much of anything, I also missed out on some amazing heroism from the cops in SWAT. So, officers [Michael] Smidga and [Daniel] Mead stopping the monster at the door.”
Government and defense experts testified that the killer had a second target in mind, Fienberg said, which may have been the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh or JFCS. If Smidga and Mead had not stopped him at the door, he might have murdered dozens of others.
Fienberg also learned of the heroism of SWAT Officer Tim Matson — and his multiple surgeries, the result of being riddled with bullets.
He said he was in awe of all of the first responders and “everything they all had to go through to stop him. Unbelievable. They’re an amazing group. I love them.”
Despite the harrowing testimony and graphic evidence, there were some silver linings that came out of spending nine weeks at court, including the deep relationships that developed among those most affected by the massacre, Fienberg said.
The victims’ families and the survivors, and even some of the first responders, formed “amazingly strong bonds,” he said. “You have friends and family you didn’t seek out, but you got them anyway. And the support that we’ve been able to show to each other is really invaluable.”
Support from the community also was vital, he said. The 10.27 Healing Partnership and JFCS ensured that counselors were in the courthouse every day. They even brought in support dogs.
Talking to someone not directly involved with the attack was helpful, he said, “in ways that I probably wouldn’t have considered.”
Fienberg also praised victim assistance specialist Adrienne Howe, who made sure the victims and the families were well cared for.
“She’s been amazing from the beginning, but I didn’t meet her until we got to court and, she’s just phenomenal,” Fienberg said. “It’s an amazing thing to be on the receiving end from such a powerful, supportive person.”
Likewise, the prosecution team was “fantastic,” he said. “They would go to great lengths to try to help us understand what was going on what might come next, working with us and involving us as best they could while prosecuting the case to the best of their ability. And they did an awesome job.”
He also credited the police, who escorted most of the families and survivors to and from the courthouse every day, and the court security officers.
“The CSOs were compassionate,” he said. “They were doing their job and they were doing it well, and they were being courteous and respectful in a way that they didn’t have to be. And they were patient. Especially with all of us.”
The jury, who “didn’t make the choice to be in that courtroom,” showed “amazing professionalism,” he said.
“They did an honor to my mom and the 11 that were killed and all that were injured.”
The wider community also offered support, Fienberg said. Local businesses sent in lunch for the survivors and families daily.
“The fact that all of these businesses wanted to do something to help, and they wanted to send in food and drink — whatever they could do — that’s amazing,” he said.
These acts of kindness reminded Fienberg of the outpouring of community support in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. “It’s almost five years later,” he said, “and the community still was going to do whatever they could think of to help try to take care of us during this horrible trial.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.