Accused California synagogue gunman pleads not guilty to hate crimes

(Reuters) – A California nursing student charged with last month’s deadly shooting spree in a San Diego-area synagogue and arson at a nearby mosque pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to more than 100 counts of federal hate crimes and civil rights offences.

John Timothy Earnest, 19, who could face the death penalty if convicted, was appointed an attorney with expertise in capital cases in a brief appearance in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

Earnest pleaded not guilty last month in state court to one count of murder as a hate crime – a capital offence under California law – and three counts of attempted murder stemming from the April 27 shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue. One worshipper was killed in that attack and three others wounded.

He also pleaded not guilty to arson in connection with a March 24 fire that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido. No one was injured in that blaze.

The suspect, who was arrested following the synagogue attack, was linked to the mosque fire after an online manifesto written by a John Earnest was discovered claiming responsibility for it and professing to have been inspired by a gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand earlier in March.

The separate federal criminal complaint, filed on May 9, charged Earnest with 54 counts of obstructing the exercise of religious freedom resulting in death and bodily injury, plus 54 counts of violating federal hate-crime statutes.

Prosecutors said 54 people were present in the temple when the shooting took place.

The federal complaint also charges Earnest with causing damage to religious property involving use of a dangerous weapon or fire, in connection with the mosque arson.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Hannigan said the federal and state cases would proceed along “parallel” tracks, and that Earnest would likely remain in state pretrial custody, except when he appears for proceedings in federal court.

He is accused of entering the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Passover holiday and opening fire with an assault-style rifle, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60. The rabbi was shot in the hand and lost a finger.

The attack ended when the gunman’s weapon apparently jammed and he was chased from the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation. After speeding away by car, the suspect pulled over and surrendered to police.

The shooting came six months after a gunman killed 11 worshipers in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest ever attack on American Jewry. The accused gunman was arrested.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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