Accused California synagogue shooter charged with federal hate crimes

FILE PHOTO - John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court near public defender John O'Connell (L) and a San Diego County Bailiff during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A California nursing student accused of a deadly shooting spree in a San Diego-area synagogue and arson at a nearby mosque was charged on Thursday with 109 counts of federal hate crimes and civil rights violations, prosecutors said.

John Earnest, 19, was already charged in state court with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the April 27 attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, which left one worshipper dead and three others wounded, including a rabbi.

In the federal complaint, Earnest faces one count for each of the people in the synagogue at the time of the shooting, including 12 children, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said.

“The complaint alleges the defendant violently targeted members of the synagogue and mosque for no other reason than his hatred of the Jewish people and those of the Muslim faith,” Brewer said at a news conference.

Earnest pleaded not guilty to the state charges, and to one count of arson on a house of worship stemming from a pre-dawn fire that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido on March 24. No one was injured in the blaze.

Earnest, who was enrolled at the California State University at San Marcos, was arrested shortly after the synagogue shooting north of San Diego. Authorities linked him to the arson through an online manifesto in which they say he claimed responsibility for setting fire to the mosque.

The author of the violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim screed also professed to have drawn inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand earlier in March.

The state charges allege that the synagogue shooting was perpetrated as a hate crime. If convicted of those charges, Earnest would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.

In the separate federal criminal complaint filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Diego, Earnest was charged with 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and bodily injury, plus 54 counts of violating federal hate-crime statutes, Brewer said.

Earnest also was charged with causing damage to religious property involving use of a dangerous weapon or fire.

Authorities said Earnest stalked into the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday and opened fire, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60. The rabbi, one of three others wounded in the attack, was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

The gunman’s weapon apparently jammed and he was chased from the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation, then sped away in a car as an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent shot at the getaway vehicle. Earnest pulled over and surrendered to police soon afterward.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

Suspicious blazes destroy three predominantly black Louisiana churches

The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, U.S. April 4, 2019 is pictured after a fire in this picture obtained from social media. Courtesy Louisiana Office Of State Fire Marshal/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Federal and state officials in Louisiana are investigating suspicious fires that destroyed three predominantly black churches in 10 days in one mostly rural parish, authorities said on Saturday.

Investigators have not concluded whether the three fires at Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of New Orleans, were connected, said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Fire Marshall’s Office.

They also have not determined whether the blazes, which occurred between March 26 and Thursday, were intentionally set, she said in an email. At a news conference on Thursday, State Fire Marshall Butch Browning was asked if investigators were treating the fires as potential hate crimes.

“If the hate crime definition was violated, we will certainly vet those things out,” Browning said.

The number of hate crimes in the United States increased 17 percent in 2017, the third consecutive year such attacks rose, according to FBI data released last fall.

Investigators probing the St. Landry Parish fires were awaiting lab results but view the three blazes as “suspicious,” Browning said at the news conference.

Without giving details, he said certain “patterns” had been discovered, but that it was too early to say whether a single individual had started the fires.

“There certainly is a commonality and whether that leads to a person or persons or groups, we don’t know,” Browning said.

The fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, the parish seat.

The FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined in the investigation, Browning said.

Investigators have concluded that a fourth fire last Sunday, more than 200 miles outside St. Landry Parish at a predominantly white church in Vivian in northwest Louisiana, was intentionally set, state fire officials said in a statement.

That fire, inside the sanctuary at Vivian United Pentecostal Church, was relatively small and burned itself out.

No one has been arrested in connection with any of the church fires, which have not resulted in any injuries, officials said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Brown)

European Jews feel under threat, think of emigrating: EU survey

The Star of David is seen on the facade of a synagogue in Paris France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – More than one in three European Jews have considered emigrating over the past five years because they no longer feel safe amid a surge in anti-Semitism, a European Union study showed on Monday.

The survey in 12 countries that are home to 96 percent of European Jews showed widespread malaise at a rise in hate crimes which Jewish communities blame in part on anti-Semitic comments by politicians that stoke a climate of impunity.

Feelings of insecurity were particularly acute among Jews in France, followed by Poland, Belgium and Germany, the study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found.

Facing hostility online and at work or in graffiti scrawled on walls near synagogues, nine out of ten Jews living in nations which have been their home for centuries feel that anti-Semitism has worsened over the past five years, the study said.

“It is impossible to put a number on how corrosive such everyday realities can be, but a shocking statistic sends a clear message … more than one third say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews,” FRA’S director Michael O’Flaherty was cited as saying in a foreword to the study.

EU officials presenting the report in Brussels on Monday called on governments to do more to combat such hate, including commemorating the history of the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed at least six million Jews in Europe during World War Two.

“What we need now is concrete action in the member states to see real change for Jews on the ground,” European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans told reporters. “There is no Europe if Jews don’t feel safe in Europe.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn are among the most prominent EU leaders battling accusations of anti-Semitism by Jewish community leaders.

Worries over the hostile rhetoric are underscored by government figures in several European countries showing a spike in violence against Jews.

Following a number of high-profile attacks targeting Jews, soldiers and armed guards at the doors of synagogues or Jewish schools have become a familiar site in Europe.

Eighty-five percent of the 16,395 polled identified anti-Semitism as the biggest social and political problem, while almost a third said they avoid attending events or visiting Jewish sites.

However, 79 percent of those who experienced harassment said they did not report the incidents to authorities.

The results showed a loss of faith in their governments’ ability to keep them safe, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) said, causing Jews to feel torn between emigrating and cutting themselves off from their Jewish community.

“This is intolerable and a choice no people should have to face,” EJC head Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

A government spokeswoman in Germany said the results of the study were shocking, adding that the interior ministry “isn’t looking at it idly.”

 

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels and Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect pleads not guilty

FILE PHOTO: People pray at a makeshift memorial near the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Chriss Swaney

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – The man charged with opening fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue and killing 11 worshipers pleaded not guilty on Thursday in federal court to all 44 counts against him, including hate crimes and firearms offenses.

Robert Bowers, 46, an avowed anti-Semite, appeared defiant and determined in court. Dressed in a red jumpsuit and with a bandaged left arm, he walked into the courtroom with what appeared to be a swagger.

He spoke little, other than to say he understood the charges against him, and that some of them could result in the death penalty, followed by entering a plea of “not guilty.”

Bowers was injured during a shootout with police during the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood in what is believed to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. He had appeared in court on Monday shackled to a wheelchair.

His appearance in court on Thursday came as funerals for three more victims were planned during the day.

Funerals will be held for Sylvan Simon, 86, his wife, Bernice, 84, and for Richard Gottfried, 65.

Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty against Bowers.

He is accused of bursting into the synagogue and opening fire with a semi-automatic rifle and three pistols in the midst of the Sabbath prayer service as he shouted “All Jews must die.”

Six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was shot by police and surrendered.

The attack, following a wave of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and other Trump critics, has heightened national tensions days ahead of U.S. congressional elections on Tuesday that will decide whether U.S. President Donald Trump loses the Republican majority he now enjoys in the Senate and House.

The Pittsburgh massacre also has fueled a debate over Trump’s rhetoric and his self-identification as a “nationalist,” which critics say has led to a surge in right-wing extremism and may have helped provoke the synagogue bloodshed.

The Trump administration has rejected the notion that he has encouraged white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have embraced him, insisting he is trying to unify Americans, even as he continues to disparage the media as an “enemy of the people.”

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Larry King and Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. hate crimes rise for second straight year: FBI

U.S. hate crimes rise for second straight year: FBI

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of hate crimes committed in the United States rose in 2016 for the second consecutive year, with African-Americans, Jews and Muslims targeted in many of the incidents, the FBI said on Monday in an annual report.

There were 6,121 hate crime incidents recorded last year, an almost 5 percent rise from 2015 and a 10 percent increase from 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hate Crimes Statistics report said. It did not give a reason for the rise.

Black Americans were targeted in about half the 3,489 incidents based on race, ethnicity or ancestry, the report said, followed by whites who were targeted in 720.

About half the 1,273 incidents that involved religion were against Jews. Muslims were targeted in 307 religion-based crimes, up 19 percent from 2015 and double the number in 2014.

There were 1,076 incidents involving lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, with almost two-thirds of those targeting gay men.

The hate crimes recorded last year included nine murders and 24 rapes, the report said. Of the 5,770 known offenders, 46 percent were white and 26 percent were African-American.

The report was based on data voluntarily submitted by about 15,000 law enforcement agencies.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Grant McCool)

Judge closes hearing on South Carolina church gunman’s competency

South Carolina church massacre shooting suspect Dylann Roof is seen in U.S. District Court of South Carolina evidence photo which was originally taken from Roof's website. Courtesy U.S. District Court of South Carolina

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A judge on Monday barred the public and press from a hearing to determine if Dylann Roof is mentally fit to serve as his own lawyer in the penalty phase of his trial, when the jury will decide whether to give him the death penalty for the 2015 massacre at a South Carolina church.Roof, 22, an avowed white supremacist, shot dead nine people at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The same jury found Roof guilty last month of 33 counts of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations.

The jury will be seated again to determine whether to put Roof to death but first the judge must decide whether Roof can serve as his own attorney or whether he will be represented by court-appointed lawyers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, whose decision was expected on Monday, said he was keeping the proceedings closed in order to avoid sequestering the jury.

Gergel said he was concerned jurors would inadvertently hear potentially prejudicial information from the hearing if reporters were allowed to cover it, ruling that protecting Roof’s right to a fair trial outweighed the media’s right to view the hearing.

The judge rejected arguments from press attorney Jay Bender and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, who wanted an open hearing. Gergel also banned relatives of the victims from attending.

The judge previously found Roof competent to stand trial after a hearing held in November ahead of the guilt phase but on Monday was due to hear new testimony from forensic psychiatrist James Ballenger, who examined Roof for five hours over the weekend, Gergel said.

Roof’s standby lawyers filed a motion arguing that Roof was not competent to stand trial or represent himself after he revealed at a hearing last week that he would present no evidence or witnesses during the sentencing phase.

His announcement raised “in especially stark fashion the question of whether the defendant is actually unable to defend himself,” the lawyers said in a court filing.

A team led by prominent capital defense lawyer David Bruck represented Roof during the guilt phase of the trial.

Roof has opted to represent himself for the sentencing phase, due to begin on Tuesday, and has sought to keep jurors from hearing evidence about his competency and mental health.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrea Ricci)

White supremacist found guilty on all counts in Charleston church massacre

South Carolina church massacre shooting suspect Dylann Roof is seen in U.S. District Court of South Carolina evidence photo which was originally taken from Roof's website.

By Greg Lacour

CHARLESTON, S.C., Dec 15 (Reuters) – A federal jury on Thursday found avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof guilty on all counts for gunning down nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year.

Twelve jurors deliberated for a little under two hours after six days of chilling testimony about the bloodshed during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015. The panel will return on Jan. 3 to decide whether Roof should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Roof, 22, showed no emotion as the guilty verdicts were read on 33 charges of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations.

“Justice has been served,” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in a statement immediately after the verdict in a case that intensified the debate about race relations in the United States.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Haley led a push that removed the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol
grounds in Columbia. The flag was carried by pro-slavery Confederate forces during the Civil War and is viewed by many as a racist emblem.

Roof’s trial was one of two racially charged proceedings that played out in recent weeks in courthouses across the street from each other in the heart of Charleston’s downtown.

A state murder trial against a former North Charleston police officer who shot and killed a black man fleeing a traffic stop last year ended on Dec. 5 in a mistrial after jurors deadlocked.

Roof’s guilt was not in dispute. But his defense lawyers, hoping to spare him from execution, asked jurors to consider what factors had driven Roof to commit the senseless act and suggested he might be delusional.

The defense did not call any witnesses after the trial judge blocked them from presenting evidence of Roof’s mental state during the guilt phase of the trial. Roof plans to represent himself during the penalty phase.

During closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutors reminded jurors that Roof had been eager to share his story, giving a two-hour videotaped confession to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and telling one worshipper he was letting her live so she could recount what he had done.

“He must be held accountable for each and every action he took inside that church,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams said. “For every life he took.”

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)