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San Diego synagogue shooter gets second life sentence

Dual prosecutions by states and the Department of Justice are becoming an increasingly common legal strategy to ensure perpetrators of hate-motivated shootings serve the maximum sentence.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Already serving a life sentence after evading the death penalty for the 2019 antisemitic shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue which left congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye dead, a 22-year-old San Diego man was handed a second life sentence Tuesday.

The dual life sentences for John T. Earnest follow a legal trend across the country where perpetrators of hate-motivated shootings face judgment in both state and federal courts to ensure they cannot evade justice should one of the sentences be overturned on appeal.

But the strategy by state and federal prosecutors can create some speedbumps in the path to justice, including where a defendant serves their time.

That question dominated Earnest’s federal sentencing hearing Tuesday morning, presided over by U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia in the Southern District of California.

While Earnest’s attorney Ellis “Trip” Johnston requested his client serve his sentence in a California prison, claiming state correctional facilities have “more programming” to aid in Earnest’s rehabilitation and “potential to continue to mature,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Ko said Earnest’s placement “was up to the executive branch.”

A request had already been made to house Earnest with the Bureau of Prisons, Ko told Battaglia, a Barack Obama appointee.

Before handing down Earnest’s life sentence plus 30 years for the 113-count indictment which included hate crimes, church arson and firearms charges, Battaglia questioned why the Justice Department continued to pursue its case after the death penalty case against Earnest was moving forward in state court.

“How does it serve the federal interest when the constitutionality of the prosecution was raised about a year ago?” Battaglia asked. “Why did we do this if it is just going to have the same outcome?”

Ko responded: “At the time of the prosecution, we didn’t know what the outcome would be. We certainly believe a life sentence is appropriate.”

Battaglia questioned whether the federal sentence was an insurance policy to ensure Earnest would serve a life sentence for the hate crime.

“If something were to happen to the integrity of the state sentence, the federal sentence would still stand?” Battaglia asked, to which Ko responded: “Exactly."

In a statement to Courthouse News, Rachel Carrol Rivas, a lead senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center said the dual prosecutions of Earnest is not uncommon.

“My observation from criminal justice reform work is that concurrent state and federal prosecution, as well as civil suits, for especially egregious crimes like violent hate crimes is not uncommon today as our communities and legal system take seriously the horror of such crimes,” Rivas said.

She added: “Hate crimes have deadly implications for immediate victims and far-reaching effects of instilling fear in a group of people. White nationalist activity targets Jewish folks, African American communities, immigrants and those that are ‘othered.”

Rivas referenced the manifesto of white nationalist ideology which Earnest posted online shortly before driving to the Chabad of Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover on April 27, 2019, where he shot and killed Gilbert-Kaye and wounded several others including Rabbi Yisorel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her uncle, 34-year-old Almog Peretz.

Earnest was a 19-year-old nursing student at the time he committed the crime.

“Unfortunately, the Poway violence is an example of a far-too-common experience of the radicalization of youth online. What’s behind this act of violence was a manifesto of white nationalist ideology that included the false great replacement theory that we now hear out of the mouths of all kinds of far-right actors,” Rivas said.

Dual prosecutions were pursued in similar hate-motivated shootings including the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and 2015 shooting at a historically Black church in Charleston, North Carolina.

Comments during Earnest’s hearing Tuesday mirrored previous comments by state prosecutor Scarlett A. Wilson, who described a state plea agreement in the Charleston case as an “insurance policy” in case a federal death penalty verdict was overturned.

In court Tuesday, Earnest declined to make any statements.

But several survivors of the shooting gave harrowing victim impact statements, including two written statements by minor sisters who escaped Earnest’s spray of bullets which were read to the court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Harrigan.

Many of the survivors — including some whose family members survived the Holocaust — called Earnest an “animal” during their comments to Battaglia.

Before handing down the sentence, Battaglia recognized running the life sentence imposed in the federal case concurrently to the life sentence already handed down in San Diego Superior Court “would be merely symbolic.”

“However, symbols are important — we have the flag, we have our government seal. Hate has to be addressed and held up as something that will not be tolerated,” Battaglia said.

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