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US white supremacist given life sentence for fatal synagogue attack

Hearing provided 13 victims and families with a chance to address the killer but he was not allowed to speak to the courtroom.

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White supremacist John T. Earnest listens to Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh during his sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

White supremacist John T. Earnest listens to Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh during his sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

White supremacist John T. Earnest listens to Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh during his sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

A 22-year-old white supremacist in the US was denied a chance to address a courtroom before a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

John T. Earnest burst 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 Earnest the death penalty left little suspense about the outcome.

But the hearing provided 13 victims and families a chance to address the killer and gave a sense of finality to a case illustrating how online hate speech can lead to extremist violence.

Many gave heart-wrenching accounts of how their lives were upended and how determined they were to persevere despite such devastating loss.

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Howard Kaye pauses as becomes overcome with emotion as he gives a victim impact statement in John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Howard Kaye pauses as becomes overcome with emotion as he gives a victim impact statement in John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

AP/PA Images

Howard Kaye pauses as becomes overcome with emotion as he gives a victim impact statement in John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Earnest’s lawyer, 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. Earnest has not spoken publicly or disavowed earlier statements.

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“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.

His court-appointed lawyer declined to speak with reporters. His parents did not attend.

Minutes after the shooting, Earnest called the 911 emergency number to say he had 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.

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Hannah Kaye paused to recompose herself before giving a victim impact statement during John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Hannah Kaye paused to recompose herself before giving a victim impact statement during John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

AP/PA Images

Hannah Kaye paused to recompose herself before giving a victim impact statement during John T. Earnest’s sentencing hearing (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Earnest killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded an eight-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 his wife was “a superior person and a wonderful woman”.

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.

Almog Peretz, who was shot with his eight-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”.

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.

“To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” they said.

In a statement issued late on Thursday, the family said “our hearts are heavy and our sadness profound”.

“Right now, we cannot add to the words we have previously expressed, except to say that the hate that motivated him will not win. Love must win,” the statement 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.


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