The San Diego County district attorney’s office will seek the death penalty against John Earnest, accused of hate crime shootings at a Poway synagogue that left one dead and three wounded, prosecutors announced Thursday.
Earnest’s attorney told San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh he will need co-counsel to assist in the defense of a death penalty case and more time to prepare for trial, which is currently set for June. 2.
Deputy Public Defender John O’Connell had no comment after the brief hearing.
Earnest, 20, of Rancho Peñasquitos, sitting in court, did not visibly react to the announcement.
The former nursing student is charged with murder, three counts of attempted murder, a firearms allegation and hate crime allegations in the April 27 shootings at Chabad of Poway. He also is charged with arson at an Escondido mosque in March 2019.
Attorneys are to return to court April 17 to discuss a likely timeline for the trial.
Prosecutors declined to say when the death penalty decision had been reached.
But Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said out of court that among the factors they took into consideration were the evidence in the case and discussions with the surviving victims wounded in the shooting and the family of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, who was killed.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot in both hands, causing him to lose an index finger. Congregants Almog Peretz, then 34, and his niece, Noya Dahan, then 8, were wounded.
Earnest is believed to have posted online a lengthy, signed diatribe against Jews, Muslims and racial minorities. The open letter describes his hatred of Jews, writing as if the posting will be read after he has killed as many Jews as possible.
The posting was spotted before the shootings and forwarded to the FBI by a tipster, but too late for investigators to identify and stop the author.
The shootings were caught on security-camera video, showing a man identified by prosecutors as Earnest stepping into the synagogue doorway, raising a rifle and firing. Then he ran to his nearby car and drove off as an off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at him.
Several minutes later, Earnest called 911 and told a California Highway Patrol dispatcher that he had just “opened fire at a synagogue.” He said he thought he had killed some people.
He waited in Rancho Bernardo for officers to arrive, then surrendered quietly to San Diego police. They seized an AR-15 rifle and ammunition from his car.
Earnest bought the rifle from a San Diego gun store the day before the attack, despite a state law that took effect last year prohibiting people under 21 years old from buying firearms. Exceptions are made for those with a hunting license, but Earnest’s hunting license application had not yet gone into effect.
Earnest also faces a 113-count federal indictment alleging hate crimes, using a firearm and obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by using a dangerous weapon resulting in death and injury.
He has pleaded not guilty to all state and federal charges.
Prosecutors in the federal case have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Last fall, the U.S. attorney’s office asked a federal judge for additional time to determine whether to seek the death penalty. Federal capital punishment cases are rare, and the review process is extensive.
If local prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty, their recommendation goes to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., for approval. Defense and prosecuting attorneys argue before a Capital Case Committee. The assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division weighs in, and the final decision is made by the U.S. attorney.
A March 20 date was set for attorneys to return before U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia. He approved additional counsel for the defense. Patrick J. Burke, a Denver-based veteran criminal defense attorney, joins lead attorney Kathryn Nester, executive director of Federal Defenders of San Diego, and two others from her office.
Nester attended the Superior Court hearing on Thursday and afterward called it “a sad day.”
She said Burke is experienced and well known around the country for his defense work in federal capital punishment cases.
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