Court Battles

Suspected gunman in 2019 California synagogue shooting pleads guilty

The suspected gunman in the shooting at a Southern California synagogue on the last day of Passover in 2019 has pleaded guilty to murder and other charges as part of an agreement with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty. 

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office announced the guilty plea in a press release Tuesday, explaining that John Earnest, now 22, has agreed to serve the remainder of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

According to prosecutors, Earnest used a semi-automatic rifle to open fire on 54 worshippers gathered at Chabad of Poway, killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injuring three others, including an 8-year-old girl and the synagogue’s rabbi, who lost one of his index fingers. 

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 30, the district attorney’s office said. 

“Earnest pleaded guilty to the willful, deliberate, premeditated murder of Ms. Kaye, and the willful, deliberate, and premeditated attempted murder” of three others, the office added in its press release. “Earnest admitted that he committed those crimes because of his bias and hatred of Jews, and he admitted that he personally discharged a firearm causing death and great bodily injury.” 

Prosecutors added that the man had also admitted to committing arson at the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque “for the purpose of terrorizing Muslim worshipers.” 

Earnest still faces several federal and hate crime charges, including 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and bodily injury.

The attorney’s office said in a statement that while prosecutors “reserved the option of trying this as a death penalty case, life in prison without the possibility of parole for the defendant is an appropriate resolution to this violent hate crime and we hope it brings a measure of justice and closure to the victims, their families, friends and the wider community.” 

“After consulting with the Kaye family and the many victims impacted by the shooting, the decision to accept a plea of life in prison was made in the interest of justice and with the knowledge that a parallel prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and possible plea in that case would prevent the state’s case from moving forward,” the office explained. 

On top of the life sentence, Earnest has also agreed to an additional 121 years to life and 16 years in state prison, the district attorney’s office said.

An open letter containing Earnest’s name was found online by prosecutors shortly after the shooting in 2019, in which the suspect discussed planning for the attack, including that he was inspired by the 2018 deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019. 

Earlier this month, a San Diego judge ruled that survivors and families of victims in the 2019 California synagogue shooting could sue Smith & Wesson, the manufacturer of the weapon Earnest allegedly used in the attack, as well as the gun store that sold the weapon to him.

Tags anti-semitism California Chabad of Poway synagogue Christchurch guilty plea New Zealand Pittsburgh Poway shooting San Diego Semi-automatic rifles Synagogue shooting

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