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109 federal charges filed against accused synagogue shooter

John Earnest, 19, accused of killing one and wounding three others in the Chabad of Poway shooting on April 27, 2019, appears in San Diego Superior court with his attorney, John O'Connell, during his arraignment on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Federal prosecutors in San Diego on Thursday charged the 19-year-old man accused of attacking a Poway synagogue last month, killing one person and wounding three others, with hate crimes and other offenses that could lead to the death penalty.

John T. Earnest is charged in a criminal complaint with 109 total counts: 54 of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon, resulting in death and bodily injury; 54 of hate-crime acts related to the shooting at the synagogue; and one count of damage to religious property by use of fire, stemming from a blaze sparked at an Escondido mosque in March.

U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer Jr., announced the charges against Earnest at a downtown news conference where he was flanked by state and federal law enforcement officials. The charges are not a complete surprise — the FBI had said on the day of the shooting they were conducting an investigation — but they do set up a rare dual prosecution between state and federal prosecutors.

Earnest, who is from Rancho Peñasquitos, has already pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and arson charges in San Diego Superior Court. Those charges put him in line to potentially face the death penalty under state law.

Brewer said Earnest will make his first appearance in federal court on Tuesday, the start of what will be an unusual dual prosecution in state and federal courts. “Going forward we expect both cases to proceed simultaneously,” he said.

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Earnest is accused of barging into the Chabad of Poway on April 27 during Passover services. Authorities say he fired 10 rounds from an AR-15-style rifle, killing one and injuring three before he fled. He was arrested a short time later after he called 911 and identified himself as the shooter.

According to a federal affidavit, Earnest told authorities, “I just shot up a synagogue. I’m trying to defend my nation from the Jewish people… I think I killed some people.”

Earnest could now face the federal death penalty if convicted of the charges related to obstructing religious beliefs. That decision is some time away and is one that will eventually be made by the U.S. Attorney General. There has never been a federal death penalty prosecution in San Diego federal court.

He faces the same penalty in state court. That decision — to be made by District Attorney Summer Stephan — is some months away, too. The state death penalty process is lengthy, as defendants negotiate a latticework of appeals in both state and federal courts. Typically, death row inmates spend 17 years between sentence and execution, but there has not been an execution in the state since 2006.

In addition Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a reprieve for all on death row while he is governor, and halted the process for approving execution protocols, throwing the status of capital punishment in the state in doubt. Newsom has said he is personally opposed to the death penalty and wants to see capital punishment repealed. He also said he is considering a plan prohibiting prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty in current cases.

After the news conference, Brewer said the fluid death penalty debate in California did not factor into the decision to prosecute and possibly execute Earnest in federal court. “That was never discussed,” he said. “We never contemplated that.”

The affidavit said that Earnest bought the rifle from a licensed federal firearms dealer in San Diego. He picked it up on April 26, the day before the shooting at the synagogue. How Earnest obtained the gun has been an unanswered question in the case. A state law passed last year raised the age when someone can legally purchase a rifle to 21.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Harrigan, one of the prosecutors on the case, did not provide additional details beyond what the criminal complaint said, and noted there was no allegation that Earnest “violated federal law when he acquired the firearm.”

The complaint also said that surveillance video from inside the synagogue showed Earnest stopped firing after he failed to reload the weapon with another, 10-round ammunition magazine he was carrying. Previously it was thought he stopped firing because the gun jammed. The federal court records indicate several members of the congregation rushed him as he struggled to reload the gun.

Authorities also found on Earnest’s laptop, seized during a search of his home, a copy of his manifesto. which was also posted online. In it, he admitted committing the arson on the Escondido mosque, and wrote extensive anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic passages, according to the complaint. He also said he was inspired by two other mass shooters who killed congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a mosque in New Zealand.

The 54 charges of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs and the 54 hate crime charges are connected to each individual who was in the synagogue at the time, Brewer said. He said Earnest’s actions were motivated by his explicit anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic hatred.

“We will not allow out community members to be hunted in their houses of worship, where they should feel free to exercise their right to practice their religion,” he said.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.