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Gunman pleads guilty in fatal 2019 Poway synagogue shooting, avoids death penalty

Rabbi injured in synagogue shooting speaks out
Rabbi injured in Poway synagogue shooting: "I saw the face of this murderer" 03:32

A 22-year-old former nursing student pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder and other charges in connection with a deadly 2019 shooting at a Southern California synagogue on the last day of Passover.

John T. Earnest avoided the death penalty with his plea in San Diego Superior Court. The San Diego County district attorney's office said he agreed to serve the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole in state prison. Sentencing is scheduled September 30.

Earnest opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle during the last day of Passover services in April 2019 at Chabad of Poway. The attack killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded three others, including an 8-year-old girl and the rabbi, who lost a finger.

Synagogue Shooting California
Signs of support and flowers adorn a post in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif. after a fatal shooting there Monday, April 29, 2019. Gregory Bull / AP

Earnest then called 911 to say he had shot up a synagogue because Jews were trying to "destroy all white people," authorities said.

Earnest faces similar charges in federal court, where federal prosecutors faced a deadline of Aug. 30 on whether to pursue the death penalty. His next appearance in federal court is September 30. The U.S. attorney's office in San Diego did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

California Synagogue Shooting
John T. Earnest appears for his arraignment hearing in the fatal shooting at a southern California synagogue in this file photo dated April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda / AP

Earnest submitted a conditional plea agreement for consideration by federal prosecutors on June 4, the San Diego County district attorney's office said.

The district attorney said it consulted the Kaye family and other victims before agreeing to the deal, aware that a possible plea arrangement in the federal prosecution would prevent the state's case from moving forward.

"While we reserved the option of trying this as a death penalty case, life in prison without the possibility of parole for the defendant is an appropriate resolution to this violent hate crime and we hope it brings a measure of justice and closure to the victims, their families, friends and the wider community," the office said. "This plea ensures the defendant is held accountable for his crimes under California state law."

In a statement, the Anti-Defamation League San Diego called the plea deal "an important step forward in securing justice for Lori Kaye, her family, friends, loved ones, the Poway Chabad congregation, and the surrounding Jewish community, whose lives were forever changed by the actions of a man full of antisemitic hatred."

"While nothing can bring back Lori or heal the scars inflicted by the attacker, it is our hope that today's announcement of a plea deal will help the community begin the process of moving forward, and send out the larger message that Poway and San Diego will never be a place where hate can take hold unabated," the statement read.

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