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California synagogue gunman pleads guilty to deadly attack, to spend life in jail

A Californian who opened fire on a synagogue two years ago, killing one person and injuring others in an anti-Jewish attack, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

John T. Earnest, now 22, pleaded guilty to murder and other counts in the April 27, 2019 attack on the Chabad of Poway, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has announced.

Earnest entered the city synagogue north of San Diego with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle and opened fire, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, and injuring the rabbi, an 8-year-old girl and her uncle .

He ran away and called 911, saying he was the gunman and that the Jewish people were “destroying the white race,” officials said.

With the plea in state court on Tuesday, Earnest avoids a possible death sentence. But he is also facing federal charges and no decision has been made on whether to seek the death penalty in this case, a spokesperson for the US prosecutor’s office in San Diego said.

Earnest accepted a life sentence without the possibility of parole, as well as additional sentences of 121 years in life and 16 years in prison, the district attorney’s office said. Sentencing is scheduled for September 30.

“Although we reserve the right to judge this as a death penalty case, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the accused is an appropriate solution to this violent hate crime, and we hope that it will bring a measure of justice and closure to the victims, their families, friends and the community at large, ”the district attorney’s office said in a statement.

Earnest appeared to show little emotion in court on Tuesday as the allegations were read, including that he was motivated by hate and shot his victims for being Jewish. When asked if that was why he was pleading guilty, he answered “yes”.

After the synagogue shooting, investigators found a hate-filled manifesto online with Earnest’s name and discovered the document on his computer, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit in the federal case.

He expressed that he felt inspired by an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 that killed 11 people and an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left more than 50 dead, have officials said.

In addition to the Poway Synagogue shooting, Earnest admitted to setting fire to a mosque with worshipers inside in Escondido, Calif., In March 2019. No one was injured.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said it consulted with Kaye’s family and other victims affected by the shooting before accepting the plea.

An emailed request to Chabad of Poway seeking comment was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

Earnest’s family apologized and said they were deeply ashamed. They said he was brought up to reject hate.

He has also been indicted by the federal government on over 100 criminal counts, mostly hate crime charges.

State prosecutors have said that a possible plea in the federal case could have prevented the state’s case from moving forward. Earnest submitted a conditional plea deal in the federal case on June 4, the state attorney’s office said.

The federal case is ongoing, said Kelly Thornton, spokesperson for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of California. The deadline for a decision on whether to seek the death penalty is August 30, and the next hearing is scheduled for September 8.

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