San Diego Synagogue Shooter Avoids Death Penalty With Plea

The 22-year-old former nursing student killed one woman and wounded three others, including an 8-year-old girl and the rabbi, who lost a finger

John T. Earnest, left, appears for his arraignment hearing, in San Diego, in 2019.
John T. Earnest, left, appears for his arraignment hearing, in San Diego, in 2019.Credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool

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 September 30.

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

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.

A woman wipes a tear from her eye after putting flowers on a memorial at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, in Poway, California, in 2019.Credit: Denis Poroy,AP

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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