A Superior Court judge granted a request by NBC 7 and other local media outlets to unseal 17 search warrants that contain new details about the attack on a Poway synagogue earlier this year.
The warrants will give the public more information about how law enforcement gathered evidence in the hours and days after the alleged shooter, John Earnest, attacked the Chabad of Poway on April 27, 2019, killing one worshipper and injuring three other people, including the synagogue’s rabbi.
The search warrant documents should also contain detailed lists of the evidence law enforcement seized when it searched of Earnest’s home, car, and other locations.
One of the warrants may identify the gun shop where Earnest purchased the weapon he allegedly used in the attack and reveal when he bought that rifle and possibly other firearms. The warrants could also reveal whether the 19-year-old defendant had a state hunting license, which allows Californians, ages 18 to 20-years-old, to purchase a rifle.
Earnest's attorney did not oppose public release of the documents. Prosecutors also decided not to challenge the media's request, but did ask Judge Peter Deddeh to black-out the names of witnesses and investigating officers named in the documents. NBC 7 and the four other local media outlets who funded the legal effort did not oppose that request.
The documents were not released immediately because Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said it will take several days for him to produce a draft of the redactions, which must be approved by Judge Deddeh before being released to the media.
That process will most likely be finished by Friday, August 4.
The search warrants and accompanying documents, including written statements by investigators summarizing their knowledge of the case and lists of evidence collected at each location, were sealed by the judges who approved those search warrants.
According to the media’s motion to unseal the warrants, by law, those documents should have been unsealed ten days after investigators filed them with the court.
But on May 16, in response to questions from NBC 7 Investigates, a court spokesperson said Judge Deddeh would require the media to file a formal motion to unseal the documents.
NBC 7 is joined by KFMB News 8, Fox 5 San Diego, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and The Associated Press. Together, the media coalition filed a 12-page motion on June 27.
The motion notes that the state penal code provides that search warrant materials “shall be open to the public as a judicial record.” The media’s attorney also argues that the U.S. and state constitutions strictly limit the ability of courts to seal those documents.
“The Poway shooting and the resulting criminal investigation and case are matters of significant public interest,” media attorney Elizabeth Baldridge explained in the motion. “The nature of the crimes...and their profound and sustained impact on the victims, families, and loved ones also calls out for a transparent process to ensure confidence in the judicial process and eventual outcome, and to provide a therapeutic value to the community through an open judicial process that instills confidence that justice is being served.”
The attorney noted that a federal court has already unsealed two federal search warrants in the case, “...meaning the [federal] court determined that release of the warrants would not impede or undermine any continuing investigation.”
Concerns about the privacy of shooting victims, witnesses or others referred to in the documents can be assured by removing any identifying information from the documents before releasing them to the media, the attorney wrote.
NBC 7 Investigates Executive Producer Tom Jones noted that local judges have routinely sealed search warrant documents that should be available for public inspection.
“We’re not interested in revealing any information that could compromise an on-going investigation or reveal the identity of additional suspects or confidential informants,” Jones said. “But the public should know how these investigations are conducted, so it can better understand how law enforcement works, and have even greater confidence in the fairness of our legal system.”