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California Synagogue Shooter Pleads Guilty, Avoids State-Level Execution

Federal prosecutors still have the option to execute James T. Earnest following his guilty plea this week on state charges.

John Earnest Ap

A former nursing student who was accused of a 2019 shooting at a Southern California synagogue pleaded guilty to a number of charges related to the deadly shooting spree this week.

John T. Earnest, 22, pleaded guilty without the possibility of parole to murder and other charges following the 2019 shooting rampage, federal prosecutors announced on Tuesday. 

On April 27, 2019 — the final day of Passover — Earnest stormed Chabad of Poway synagogue and opened fire on worshippers. Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was shot and killed in the attack. Three others, including an 8-year-old child and a rabbi, who lost his index finger in the shooting, were also injured. 

Earnest dialed 911 and confessed he had carried out the shooting “because the Jewish people are destroying the white race,” according to a complaint obtained by Oxygen.comHe was later indicted by a federal grand jury on 113 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death.

“While we 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,” The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com. “This plea ensures the defendant is held accountable for his crimes under California state law.”

Earnest, who targeted other minority groups, also pleaded guilty to torching the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, California. He is slated to be sentenced on state charges on Sept. 30. 

Families of those there during the synagogue shooting were consulted prior to prosecutors agreeing to the deal, officials said. 

Representatives for Chabad of Poway weren’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com on Wednesday.

Earnest’s decision to cooperate with state prosecutors didn’t surprise some anti-hate advocacy groups.

“I am not surprised with it, obviously, the individual was potentially facing the death penalty,” Associate Director of the Anti-Defamation League San Diego Regional Office Matthew Brown told KFMB-TV. “The case wasn't only treated seriously as a homicide and attempted homicides, but it was treated seriously as a hate crime that impacts a significant community as not just antisemitism but other forms of hate that are on the rise.”

Earnest, however, still could face the death penalty in a higher court, as the separate federal case related to the shooting looms. 

Federal prosecutors have until Aug. 30 to decide whether they’ll pursue the death penalty against Earnest. He submitted a conditional plea agreement regarding federal charges on June 4. A spokesperson for the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed the case is moving forward on Wednesday. However, earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland announced the federal government would halt federal executions.

Cindy Cipriani, an outreach director for the office, told Oxygen.com that the decision to seek the death penalty remains pending.

Earnest’s next federal court date is scheduled for Sept. 8.

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