John T Earnest shot several people in a Poway synagogue in San Diego. Picture: Facebook
John T Earnest shot several people in a Poway synagogue in San Diego. Picture: Facebook

Teen faces death for synagogue shooting

Prosecutors are considering calling for the death penalty for synagogue shooter John T. Earnest as his parents struggle to understand how their star athlete son could carry out such a heinous crime

At his first court hearing, Earnest pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder with a special circumstance of a hate crime. He also faces three charges of attempted murder.

John T. Earnest, left, appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego. Picture: AP
John T. Earnest, left, appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego. Picture: AP

Sitting behind glass panes and wearing glasses, Earnest appeared to be looking straight at Judge Joseph Brannigan of San Diego County Superior Court, showing no emotion.

Mr Brannigan said Earnest would be held without bail, calling him "an obvious and extraordinary risk to public safety.''

John T. Earnest showed no emotion. Picture: AP
John T. Earnest showed no emotion. Picture: AP

 

Judge Joseph P. Brannigan. Picture: AP
Judge Joseph P. Brannigan. Picture: AP

Authorities say Earnest burst into a Passover service at the Chabad of Poway synagogue and started shooting, killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye and injuring Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and two worshippers.

Leonard Trinh, hate crimes prosecutor for the district attorney's office, said a determination on whether to pursue the death penalty would be made later by DA Summer Stephan. There is currently a moratorium on capital punishment in California.

 

Lori Gilbert-Kaye. Picture: Supplied
Lori Gilbert-Kaye. Picture: Supplied

 

Mr Stephan said at a news conference that hate crimes are especially heinous because they victimise all members of the religion, race or sexual orientation under attack.

Asked about the possibility of the death penalty, she said, "We consider this to be an atrocious crime for which there must be accountability."

It comes as Earnest's family struggled to comprehend how their 19-year-old son, who was an accomplished student, athlete and musician, could embrace white supremacy and anti-Semitism.

 

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, right, is hugged as he leaves a news conference at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California. Picture: AP
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, right, is hugged as he leaves a news conference at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California. Picture: AP

The suspect's parents said their son and five siblings were raised in a family that "rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do."

"To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries," the parents said Monday in their first public comments. "Our son's actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold."

The parents, who are co-operating with investigators, do not plan to plan to provide legal representation to their son, whose initial court appearance was scheduled for Tuesday. Family lawyer Earll Pott said a public defender will probably be appointed.

His father, John A. Earnest, is a popular physics teacher at Mt. Carmel, where he has worked for 31 years.

San Diego gunman John T. Earnest. Picture: Supplied
San Diego gunman John T. Earnest. Picture: Supplied

Owen Cruise, 20, said Earnest "was very close to his dad".

"He always hung out in his classroom, came to see him at lunch. He always seemed like a nice guy … He didn't seem like the type of person who would go off the deep end," he said,

Earnest's father volunteered to help students with exams and homework, said Mr Cruise, who praised his former teacher for having a big impact on his life.

On the morning of the shooting, the elder Earnest was hosting a study hour for an Advanced Placement exam and brought cookies, Mr Cruise said.

Mr Cruise, now a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, said the suspect lived at home and saw his parents every day.

"The way John T. acted is not representative at all of the way he was raised," Mr Cruise said. "They are an outstanding family. Some of the finest people I've ever met."