Poway synagogue shooter avoids death penalty with guilty plea on murder charges

California
John Earnest listens during testimony by a witness during a preliminary hearing in Superior Court in San Diego on Sept. 19, 2019. (John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune via Associated Press)

John Earnest listens during testimony by a witness during a preliminary hearing in Superior Court in San Diego on Sept. 19, 2019. (John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune via Associated Press)

A 22-year-old former nursing student pleaded guilty to the murder of one person and the attempted murders of 53 others in connection with a 2019 deadly shooting at a Southern California synagogue on the last day of Passover, effectively ending the possibility of facing the death penalty.

John T. Earnest entered a similar guilty plea on July 20 on state charges in San Diego Superior Court and agreed then to serve the rest of his life in state prison without the possibility of parole. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 30.

In the federal case, sentencing has been set for Dec. 28. Defense attorneys and prosecutors are also recommending a term of life in prison, plus 30 years, according to the plea.

Federal prosecutors had said previously that they would not seek the death penalty, and Friday’s plea agreement finalized that decision. In July, the Justice Department halted all federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment in the Trump administration, though the order didn’t prohibit prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has said he has reservations about the death penalty, issued the moratorium as officials conduct a review of the government’s policies and execution protocols.

Earnest opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle during the last day of Passover services in April 2019 at Chabad of Poway, northeast of San Diego. The attack killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded three others, including an 8-year-old girl and the rabbi, who lost a finger.

After Earnest emptied his initial magazine, several congregants rushed at him. Earnest fled in his car and, shortly after, called 911 and confessed that he had “just shot up a synagogue.” Earnest was apprehended by local law enforcement who found the rifle and additional ammunition in his car.

In his plea Friday he admitted that he set also had fire to an Escondido mosque on March 24 with seven people sleeping inside, though no one was hurt.

He said he carried out the attacks because he wanted to kill Muslims and Jews.

A federal grand jury in May 2019 indicted Earnest on 113 charges, to which he pleaded guilty on Friday.

“This nation stands with Lori Gilbert Kaye’s family and the survivors of these unspeakable acts of terror,” Acting U.S. Attorney Randy S. Grossman said in a statement. “We emphatically reject the defendant’s hate, racism and prejudice, and we hope the conclusion of this case brings some measure of comfort to all those affected by his heinous crimes.”

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