by Teri Figueroa
A former nursing student has pleaded guilty to shooting a crowd at a synagogue in Poway on the last day of Passover in 2019, killing one person and injuring three others, including a child.
John T. Ernest, now 22, pleaded guilty to the charges of murder and attempted murder in a plea deal that protects him from a possible death sentence. She faced all charges, including a charge of arson for setting fire to an Escondido mosque a month before the attack on the synagogue, and she admitted that both acts were hate crimes.
As a result of his plea, Ernest would be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, plus 121 years to life and another 16 years. It was the maximum possible sentence he could face, less than the death penalty, which prosecutors had previously indicated they planned to pursue.
He is to be sentenced in San Diego Superior Court on September 30.
When Ernest began shooting on April 27, 2019, there were 54 people inside the synagogue for a Sabbath service. Chabad 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye of Poway Congregation was killed. Founder Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and their uncle, 34-year-old Almog Peretz, were injured.
After Ernest pleaded guilty on Monday, his parents left the courtroom without commenting to reporters, as did his defense attorney, John O’Connell.
Gilbert-Kaye’s family also left without comment.
Ernest faced criminal charges for the shooting and arson at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque in parallel cases filed in state and federal court.
Federal charges include hate crimes, using a firearm and obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by using a dangerous weapon that results in death and injury.
In early June, lawyers said Ernest signed a conditional plea agreement in federal prosecutors that was submitted to the office of US Attorney General Merrick Garland. The terms of that plea motion have not been disclosed, nor have lawyers publicly stated whether those terms have been accepted.
The federal case had stalled somewhat over the past year as the court awaits a decision on whether the Justice Department will seek the death penalty. A decision has still not been publicly disclosed, but has probably been undermined somewhat by a motion to admit guilty.
Federal prosecutors have until August 30 to tell the judge whether they plan to seek execution, and Earnest is due back in federal court on September 8.
The proposed plea deal in the federal case prompted prosecutors in the state case to accept a guilty plea to avoid double jeopardy, Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinne said after Tuesday’s hearing.
California law prohibits further prosecution of a case that has already been tried in another court for the same conduct.
“It was important that he be held accountable in state court for his crimes, and that conditional pleading could interfere with our ability to prosecute him after he was petitioned in federal court,” Trinne said.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s office issued a statement saying that if prosecutors had the option of pursuing a possible death sentence, life in prison without the possibility of parole would be “an appropriate form of this violent hate crime.” is the solution.”
Prosecutors said in the statement that the decision to accept a plea deal was made “in the interest of justice and with the knowledge that parallel prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the potential plea in that case would prevent the state’s case from proceeding.”
“This petition ensures that the defendant is held accountable for his crimes under the law of the state of California,” the statement said.
Ernest was a 19-year-old Rancho Peasquitos resident and Cal State San Marcos nursing student when he walked into the synagogue in sunglasses, a military-style tactical vest, and AR-15-style and opened fire.
Earnest fled when an off-duty Border Patrol agent opened fire on him. As Ernest left, he called 911 and confessed to the shooting.
Shortly before the attack, Ernest posted an “open letter”, an online smattering of racist and anti-Semitic statements, saying that the “European race” should be preserved. He praised the mass shootings, attacks on New Zealand mosques in March 2019 in which 51 people were killed.
A month before the shooting, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order prohibiting the use of the death penalty in California, and closed the execution room at San Quentin State Prison. His orders will remain in effect as long as he is in office, although prosecutors can still seek the death penalty, as was the case with Ernest. However, his plea deal on Tuesday removed that option for prosecutors.
Staff writer Christina Davis contributed to this report.
©2011 San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.