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No death penalty for Poway synagogue shooter

John T. Earnest
John T. Earnest, accused of killing Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounding three others at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in April 2019, will not face the federal death penalty.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Rancho Peñasquitos man charged in the hate-crime attack at a Poway synagogue that killed one woman and injured three others will not face the death penalty in federal court, prosecutors said Monday.

In a terse one-sentence court filing, prosecutors with the Department of Justice said they will not seek the execution of John T. Earnest, 22, in connection with federal charges filed in the wake of the April 27, 2019 attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue.

The court filing means Earnest will not face the death penalty in either federal or state court. He pleaded guilty to state charges of murder and attempted murder on July 20 in a plea bargain in which San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan agreed not to seek state execution.

Under the terms of that deal, Earnest will be sentenced to life without possibility of parole, as well as 121 years to life and an additional 16-year term. He is scheduled to be sentenced in San Diego County Superior Court on Sept. 30.

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Meanwhile, the status of his federal case is unclear. In June, Earnest sign off on a conditional agreement to plead guilty in the federal case, which was then forwarded to U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland. The terms of the deal were not revealed.

Garland has the option of accepting the deal, which would eliminate the need for a trial. Other options include rejecting the offered deal and negotiating a new one, or rejecting it entirely and heading to trial.

A defense lawyer for Earnest did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the federal case.

Earnest is accused of barging into the lobby of the Chabad of Poway synagogue during morning Passover services and opening fire with an assault-style rifle on the 54 people inside After he got off 10 rounds, the gun either malfunctioned or Earnest, who had obtained the weapon just a couple of days before, was unfamiliar with how to use it and stopped firing.

Congregants rushed him and he fled the synagogue. He called 911 as he sped away and surrendered minutes later to police.

The gunfire killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein‘s right index finger was shot off, and Noya Dahan, then 8, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, were wounded.

Investigators later found that Earnest had posted an online screed just before the attack, laden with racist and antisemitic statements. That formed the basis for the hate-crime charges filed in state and federal court. He was also charged in state court with trying to burn down a mosque in Escondido weeks before the synagogue attack.

The conditional plea that Earnest has tendered appeared to have forced the hand of state prosecutors. When Earnest pleaded guilty in state court, the district attorney’s office said a guilty plea in federal court would have blocked prosecutors from continuing their case.

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Earnest is due back in federal court on Sept. 8.

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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