In plea deal, shooter to be sentenced to life for fatal Poway synagogue attack

Though agreement means outcome of sentencing is forgone, court session gives victims and families their first opportunity to directly address killer John T. Earnest

John T. Earnest appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego, April 30, 2019. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool, File)
John T. Earnest appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego, April 30, 2019. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A 22-year-old former nursing student will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole Thursday for bursting into a synagogue on the last day of Passover in 2019 with a semiautomatic rifle to kill one worshipper and injure three others.

An agreement with prosecutors that spares John T. Earnest the death penalty leaves little suspense about the outcome, but the hearing will give victims and families their first opportunity to address the killer directly.

About 15 to 20 people were expected to deliver victim-impact statements in San Diego Superior Court.

Minutes after the shooting, Earnest called a 911 dispatcher to say he shot up the synagogue to save white people.

“I’m defending our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people,” he said.

The San Diego man admired the gunman who killed dozens of worshippers at two New Zealand mosques shortly before he attacked Chabad of Poway, a synagogue near San Diego, on April 27, 2019. He frequented 8chan, a dark corner of the internet, for those disaffected by mainstream social media sites to post extremist, racist and violent views.

Earnest legally bought a semi-automatic rifle in San Diego a day before the attack, according to a federal affidavit. He entered the synagogue with 10 bullets loaded and 50 more on his vest but fled after struggling to reload.

A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy stands in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, in Poway, California, April 28, 2019. (Denis Poroy/AP)

Earnest killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert, who was hit twice as she prayed in the foyer, and wounded an 8-year-old girl, her uncle and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading a service on the major Jewish holiday.

The Earnest family issued a statement after the shooting expressing shock and sadness, calling their son’s actions a “terrifying mystery.” Their son was an accomplished student, athlete and musician who was studying to be a nurse at California State University, San Marcos.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye. (Facebook)

“(Our) sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people,” they wrote. “To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”

“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” the family said. “Like our five other children, he was raised in a family, a faith, and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do.”

Earnest also faces sentencing in federal court on December 28. He pleaded guilty to federal charges after the Justice Department said it wouldn’t seek the death penalty. Defense attorneys and prosecutors are recommending a life sentence.

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