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Synagogue shooter who killed 1, injured others gets life in prison

John Earnest’s family said their son’s anti-Semitic-fueled shooting targeting worshippers at a San Diego synagogue was a “terrifying mystery.” His online activity suggests otherwise.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A teenage gunman who followed white supremacist ideology and told a dispatcher he was “defending” the United States against Jewish people after opening fire on a synagogue the last day of Passover in 2019, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole Thursday.

John T. Earnest, 22, could have faced the death penalty for shooting and killing Chabad of Poway worshipper Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, on April 27, 2019 and wounding several other people, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, an 8-year-old girl and her uncle, but a plea agreement with prosecutors spared him.

Instead, San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh sentenced Earnest to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Kaye’s death. Earnest will serve concurrent sentences of 121 years to life for attempted murder charges, plus 16 years for arson charges.

Earnest had previously pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder and arson charges for setting fire to a mosque in Escondido, California the month before he brought a semiautomatic AR-15 style rifle to the North San Diego County synagogue and opened fire.

He also admitted the acts were hate crimes as part of the plea agreement.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said in a phone interview with Courthouse News “good won over evil” Thursday in the crime which “rocked our community.”

“This was the true definition of an act of a coward to murder an unarmed woman praying in a synagogue,” Stephan said, referring to Kaye praying during the Passover service for her mother who had recently passed away.

Stephan said she sat with Kaye’s family during the sentencing hearing Thursday, where her daughter Hannah Kaye gave a victim impact statement so moving “it brought the courtroom to tears.”

Stephan’s office initially brought charges against Earnest three days after the shooting.

A month later the Justice Department filed 109 hate crime charges against Earnest.

Stephan said she made the decision to pursue the death penalty “after careful review” of the case.

“This particular type of crime cannot be tolerated,” Stephan said.

She added: “To be targeted and hunted down because of their religion and trying to kill an 8-year-old girl and woman, deserved the death penalty.”

Last month Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Randy Grossman declined to pursue the death penalty in the federal case.

Stephan said Thursday due to the Supremacy Clause, the state’s case was preempted by federal law, so her office accepted a plea deal.

In the years since Kaye’s murder, Stephan’s office has ramped up prosecution of hate crimes in San Diego County, tripling their case load through a specialized prosecutor — Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh — who prosecuted the case against Earnest.

She said anti-Semitic hate crimes disproportionately make up a large chunk — 20% — of hate crimes overall compared to how many Jewish people there are.

“Social media has driven that upward,” Stephan said.

She added: “He [Earnest] was a radicalized white supremacist. He was getting more expressive and sharing YouTube videos showing a hatred and animus toward Jewish people.”

Just minutes before the shooting, the FBI got tips about a social media post by Earnest threatening violence against Jewish people.

In a statement provided to the Associated Press, Earnest’s family called their son’s actions a “terrifying mystery.”

“(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.”

The Earnest family added: “Our son's actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold. 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 is set to be sentenced in the federal case Dec. 28.

Follow Bianca Bruno on Twitter

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