Suspected Poway Synagogue Shooter Could Face Death Penalty On Federal Hate Crime Charges
UPDATE: 11:29 a.m., May 9, 2019
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced federal hate crimes and civil rights charges against the suspected gunman in the April 27 shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue.
The suspected shooter, 19-year-old John T. Earnest of Rancho Peñasquitos, is being charged with 109 counts:
– 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon, resulting in death, bodily injury, and attempts to kill;
– 54 counts of hate crimes in relation to the shooting in violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act;
– One count of damage to religious property by use of fire in relation to the attempted arson of the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque and Islamic Center in Escondido.
If convicted, Earnest faces life in prison or the death penalty, as well as numerous fines and an additional 20 years in prison for the alleged arson attack. He has already pleaded "not guilty" to state charges of murder, attempted murder and arson.
An online posting attributed to the suspect included a confession to the mosque attack, as well as multiple hateful comments toward Jews and other groups. Robert Brewer, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said he clearly stated his intent to kill as many Jews as possible.
"The defendant violently targeted members of the synagogue and the mosque for no other reason than his hatred of the Jewish people and those of the Muslim faith," Brewer said in a press conference. "We will not allow our community members to be hunted in our houses of worship, where they should feel free and safe to exercise their right to practice their religion."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Harrigan said the suspect would be arraigned in federal court next week, and that the state and federal charges would be pursued in parallel.
"Ultimately the decision on what case is tried first or how this is handled will be a joint decision," he said. "Understand, though, that any decision that is made will be in the best interest of the case and of ensuring that this defendant can be punished to the full extent of the law."
The federal complaint includes a handful of new details, including the fact that there were 54 people in the synagogue during the shooting, and that 13 of them were minors. One of those minors, 8-year-old Noya Dahan, was wounded, as was her uncle Almog Peretz. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein lost a finger in the attack.
The woman killed in the shooting, 60-year-old Lori Kaye, had gone to the synagogue to say a traditional Jewish prayer for her recently deceased mother.
The shooting took place on the last day of Passover, and exactly six months after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 people.
The complaint also alleges the gunman used a semi-automatic rifle manufactured by Smith & Wesson, and that he picked up the weapon from a federally licensed firearm dealer in San Diego one day before the shooting.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephen said previously that the suspect appeared to have purchased the firearm legally. A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 prohibits people under age 21 from purchasing semi-automatic rifles, though there is an exemption for people with valid hunting licenses from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.