SAN DIEGO — A 22-year-old former nursing student was denied a chance to address a packed courtroom before a judge sentenced him Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for bursting into a Southern California synagogue on the last day of Passover in 2019 with a semiautomatic rifle, killing one worshipper and wounding three others.
An agreement with prosecutors that spared John T. Earnest the death penalty left little suspense about the outcome, but the hearing gave 13 victims and families a chance to address the killer. Many gave heart-wrenching accounts of how their lives were upended and how determined they were to persevere despite such devastating loss.
Earnest’s attorney, John O’Connell, said his client wanted to make a statement but San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh refused, saying he did not want to create “a political forum” for white supremacist views.
“I’m not going to let him use this as a platform to add to his celebrity,” the judge said, pointing to comments that Earnest made to police when he was arrested, hand gestures to the audience during a previous hearing and his probation report.
Earnest, who was tied to a device that prevented him from turning to the audience, showed no visible reaction during the two-hour hearing as speakers called him a lowlife coward, an evil animal and a monster.
A prosecutor asked Deddeh to reconsider his refusal to let Earnest speak after conferring with the defense attorney about the substance of his remarks, but the judge didn’t budge.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, who listened to victims from a front-row seat, told reporters that Earnest’s planned statement was “more spewing of hatred and propaganda” and that the judge made the right call. The prosecutor asked the judge to reconsider only to guard against any possibility that Earnest alleges he was treated improperly, she said.
Earnest’s attorney declined to speak with reporters. His parents did not attend.
Minutes after the shooting, Earnest called a 911 dispatcher to say he shot up the synagogue to save white people. “I’m defending our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people,” he said.
The San Diego man was inspired by mass shootings at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, shortly before he attacked Chabad of Poway, a synagogue near San Diego, on April 27, 2019. He frequented 8chan, a dark corner of the internet, for those disaffected by mainstream social media sites to post extremist, racist and violent views.
Earnest legally bought a semi-automatic rifle in San Diego a day before the attack, according to a federal affidavit. He entered the synagogue with 10 bullets loaded and 50 more on his vest but fled after struggling to reload. Worshippers chased him to his car.
Earnest killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who was hit twice in the foyer, and wounded an 8-year-old girl, her uncle and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading a service on the major Jewish holiday.
Dr. Howard Kaye, Lori’s husband of 32 years, said he has continued his rheumatology practice to help people heal regardless of their backgrounds in keeping with his faith but that it was difficult for him and their daughter to carry on at times. Lori was active in charities and sacrificed a banking career to raise their daughter, he said.
“This is a superior person and a wonderful woman,” Howard Kaye said.
Hannah Kaye said her mother was victim of “an ancient hatred” of Jews. She recounted their last day together on a visit home from college in exquisite detail: their “deep and humorous conversation” in the car, a final hug as her mother dressed for services and how she held her mother’s head and said she loved her as she lay dying.
As she entered her seventh decade, Lori Gilbert-Kaye had lots of desires, Hannah said, including wanting to attend law school, ride a hot air balloon and own a restaurant that served her father’s barbecue.
“She wanted to live another day, she wanted to survive,” Hannah said of her mother’s last moments.
Almog Peretz, who was shot with his 8-year-old niece, was emotionally unprepared to attend the hearing but a Hebrew translator read his statement about how the episode killed “my body and soul.” He said his dreams are haunted and that others now define him as a “terrorist’s victim.”
“I have no motivation to see things to the end,” Peretz said, speaking of work and friendships.
Earnest’s parents issued a statement after the shooting expressing shock and sadness, calling their son’s actions a “terrifying mystery.” Their son was an accomplished student, athlete and musician who was studying to be a nurse at California State University, San Marcos.
“To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” they said.
His conviction for murder and attempted murder at the synagogue and arson for an earlier fire at a nearby mosque carry a life sentence without parole, plus 137 years in prison.
Earnest also faces sentencing in federal court on Dec. 28., having pleaded guilty after the Justice Department said it wouldn’t seek the death penalty. Defense attorneys and prosecutors are recommending a life sentence.
Stephan, the district attorney, said prosecution in state and federal court “makes me sleep better at night.”