Conflict arises in Poway synagogue shooting suspect’s defense

John Earnest in San Diego Superior Court during his preliminary hearing.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than a year into the prosecution of the man accused of firing on a Poway synagogue — killing one person and injuring three others — a conflict of interest has arisen on his defense team.

Federal Defenders of San Diego notified the judge last week that it would no longer be able to represent John Earnest in the case.

Attorneys Kathryn Nester, who is executive director of the federal public defender’s office, and Kimberly Trimble conferred with three experts, all of whom have vast experience in trying death penalty cases, and all came to the conclusion that this was not a conflict that can be waived by Earnest, they said in a court filing.


They declined to give more details. “The nature of the conflict is protected by attorney-client privilege,” they wrote.

The same conflict does not affect another attorney on the case, Patrick Burke, who was hired for his experience in trying capital cases. Burke, based in Denver, will remain on the team.

U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Battaglia this week appointed a local private defense attorney, Ellis Johnston III, to represent Earnest. He will be paid by the government as a public defender would be.

Earnest, now 21, was arrested shortly after the shooting at Chabad of Poway on April 27, 2019, after he turned himself in to police. He has been charged with 113 counts, including allegations of hate crimes and gun violence, as well as charges related to a fire set at a mosque in Escondido.

He has pleaded not guilty. The San Diego County district attorney’s office is pursuing the death penalty in a separate but parallel prosecution. Federal prosecutors have not announced their decision on pursuing capital punishment.

Attorney and judge conflicts of interest are carefully vetted at the beginning of each case. For one to arise this late is unusual.

In a twist that was first made public two weeks ago, Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi at Chabad of Poway who was wounded in the shooting, pleaded guilty to managing several financial frauds, at least one dating back decades. Other people connected to the congregation were also implicated, some also pleading guilty.

It is unclear if that case has affected Earnest’s prosecution in any way.

The attorneys did not say if a change in counsel will further delay the case. The next status hearing is set for Sept. 11.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.