Hate crimes

California Was Ready to Punish This Synagogue Shooter for Murder. The Feds Want to Make Sure He Is Also Punished for Hating Jews.

The federal hate crime charges against John T. Earnest are redundant and constitutionally problematic.


Yesterday federal prosecutors in California announced that they are charging John T. Earnest, the alleged perpetrator of last month's shooting at a synagogue near San Diego, with 108 hate crimes in connection with that attack, which killed one person and injured three others. The 19-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident already faced murder and attempted murder charges under state law, but the Justice Department wants to make sure he also gets punished for his anti-Semitism.

The 108 charges include "obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon" and "hate crimes in relation to the shooting in violation of the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act." The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California is alleging one count of each for each of the 54 people who were in the synagogue at the time of the attack. The FBI says Earnest also admitted setting fire to an Escondido mosque in March, which led to a 109th charge, for "damage to religious property by use of fire."

The federal charges, which can be punished by life in prison or the death penalty, make it more likely that Earnest will be executed for his crimes. He might be eligible for the death penalty under California law as well, but Gov. Gavin Newsom recently imposed a moratorium on executions in that state.

As with Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof, Charlottesville killer James Fields, and Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, the evidence against Earnest will include the opinions he expressed before the attack. "After the shooting," the DOJ press release says, "law enforcement investigators found a manifesto online bearing Earnest's name. A copy of the manifesto was later found on Earnest's laptop during the execution of a search warrant. In the manifesto, Earnest made many anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. Specifically, Earnest referred to 'Jews' as a race, and he stated his only regret was that he did not kill more people."

If Earnest had not written his anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim manifesto, it would be harder for prosecutors to prove that he targeted his victims because of their religion. Without that element, the federal hate crime charges would not apply, meaning he would be punished only under state law, probably by life in prison rather than the death penalty. It is therefore not far-fetched to say the manifesto could be the difference between life and death for Earnest, in which case he would effectively be punished for his abhorrent beliefs as well as his appalling actions.

"No one in this country should be subjected to unlawful violence, injury, or death for who they are or for their religious beliefs," said Eric Dreiband, the assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. "Our actions today are inspired by our desire to achieve justice for all of the victims and their families."

I'd go a bit further than Dreiband, since I believe no one in this country should be subjected to unlawful violence, injury, or death for any reason. When they are, state courts are fully capable of seeking "justice for all of the victims and their families."

There is no constitutional justification for the federal government to get involved, and when it does the prospect of serial trials or multiple punishments for the same crime should trouble anyone who thinks the Framers were onto something when they wrote the Fifth Amendment's ban on double jeopardy. Worse, the justification for all this duplicative effort is precisely to punish people for their bigoted beliefs, which are supposed to be protected by the First Amendment.