Poway synagogue shooter pleads not guilty to hate crime charges
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Poway synagogue shooter pleads not guilty to hate crime charges

US attorney says prosecutors still deciding whether to seek death penalty against John Earnest for deadly attack on San Diego-area Chabad

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

SAN DIEGO, California — The man suspected of killing a woman in a shooting at a Southern California synagogue pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges Tuesday.

John T. Earnest spoke twice during the brief hearing — to acknowledge his name and to say he agreed with his court-appointed attorney’s decision against seeking bail.

Earnest, 19, is charged with bursting into the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27 and opening fire with an assault rifle, killing one and injuring three.

Peter Ko, an assistant US attorney, told the judge that the government had not decided whether to seek the death penalty. He reaffirmed plans to try Earnest separately and simultaneously with a state charge of murder that is classified as a hate crime, which also exposes Earnest to a potential death sentence.

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

Earnest had a buzz haircut and didn’t wear glasses, unlike his first appearance in state court two weeks ago, when he had a full head of hair.

He looked blankly at Magistrate Judge Michael Berg as the judge explained the proceedings and followed along with his attorney, Kathryn Nester, as she flipped pages of the charging document that the judge read aloud. Earnest’s wrists and ankles were shackled.

A federal affidavit detailing the hate crime charges that was filed last week describes a deeply disturbed man filled with hatred toward Jews and Muslims, which are detailed in a manifesto he allegedly published online.

A group gathers outside the Tree of Life Synagogue for a vigil to honor the victims of the attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, on April 27, 2019, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Earnest claimed to be inspired by the attacks on the mosques in New Zealand and the shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue last fall, the affidavit said.

Court documents said Earnest dialed 911 after fleeing the synagogue in his car and said: “I just shot up a synagogue.” He went on to tell the dispatcher he did it “because Jewish people are destroying the white race,” according to the affidavit. He was quickly arrested without a struggle.

A photo of Lori Gilbert-Kaye at the Chabad of Poway, California, May 3, 2019. (Gabrielle Birkner/JTA)

Earnest has pleaded not guilty to state murder charges in the death of 60-year-old Lori Kaye, who was hit twice as she prayed in the synagogue foyer. Wounded were Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading the service, 8-year-old girl Noya Dahan and her uncle Almog Peretz, both of them Israeli.

He also pleaded not guilty to state and federal charges of trying to burn a mosque in the nearby city of Escondido.

Outside the mosque was the scrawled name of the man suspected of carrying out shootings at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

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