Death sentence ordered for man who 'executed' San Diego police officer

Officer Jonathan "J.D." De Guzman was gunned down behind the wheel of his patrol car in 2016


By Teri Figueroa
The San Diego Union-Tribune
        
SAN DIEGO — A San Diego man was sentenced to death Friday in the 2016 shooting death of San Diego police Officer Jonathan "J.D." De Guzman, who was gunned down behind the wheel of his patrol car.

Jesse Michael Gomez, 58, did not react upon hearing the sentence. He was convicted last year of first-degree murder and a special-circumstance allegation that Gomez knowingly killed a police officer. Gomez was also found guilty of attempted murder for shooting De Guzman's partner, and of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

"He executed a police officer," Superior Court Judge Frederick Link said before issuing the sentence. "He didn't kill or shoot a police officer. He executed a police officer."

Jesse Gomez (right), who was convicted of first-degree murder, listens to testimony during his sentencing hearing at the San Diego Central Courthouse on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Jesse Gomez (right), who was convicted of first-degree murder, listens to testimony during his sentencing hearing at the San Diego Central Courthouse on Friday, March 4, 2022. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It's the first death sentence handed down in San Diego County in a dozen years.

De Guzman's widow, Jane De Guzman, sat with her hands folded and eyes closed as she listened to the judge speak. Earlier in the hearing, she spoke tearfully of the trauma of the loss of her husband, father to their two children.

"I hope you realize what you have done," she said to Gomez. "I do not understand how you could take someone's life without thinking of their family."

Gomez admitted at trial that he shot De Guzman and Officer Wade Irwin the night of July 28, 2016, when the pair tried to stop Gomez as he walked along a sidewalk on a dark street in the city's Southcrest neighborhood.

De Guzman, 43, died that night. Irwin was shot in his throat but survived, spending spent nearly a month in a hospital.

The Superior Court jury that last September found Gomez guilty of all charges also recommended he be executed. On Friday, Irwin asked Link to sentence Gomez to death, saying Gomez's actions "destroyed people's lives."

"The time has come for Jesse Michael Gomez to pay with his life for the choice he made on July 28, 2016," said Irwin, now a detective.

He later directed his comments to Gomez.

"I want you to remember my name and my face," Irwin said. "When the day comes to execute you, I want you to look over, because I will be watching. Just like I had to watch as you executed my partner."

De Guzman and Irwin were members of the San Diego Police Department's gang suppression team. They were doing one final patrol for the night in Southcrest when a gunman opened fire on them on Acacia Grove Way shortly before 11 p.m. July 28, 2016.

Irwin said they had spotted Gomez at a corner with another person and the two abruptly split up. That raised suspicion for De Guzman, so the officers drove up behind Gomez.

When Irwin got out of the patrol car and asked Gomez if he lived in the area, Gomez spun around suddenly and opened fire. At trial, Irwin said Gomez had an "angry, hateful look."

After he was shot, Irwin fell back against the car. He said the gunman moved in toward the patrol car, coming within a few feet of it while continuing to shoot. De Guzman was still in the driver's seat when he was hit.

Although badly wounded, Irwin was able to shoot Gomez before he ran off. Police found Gomez in a nearby ravine, unconscious and bleeding.

Gomez — who had been drinking and had used methamphetamine the day of the shooting — testified that he opened fire on the men, thinking they were gang members issuing a challenge — not police officers.

That, he said, was because they were tailing him slowly in a car as he walked on the darkened street, and because Irwin asked him where he lived — a question often used as a gang challenge.

In court Friday, Gomez offered a brief statement.

"I want to let the De Guzman family know that this was not an intentional act," Gomez said. "If I could trade places with Officer De Guzman, I would. But I cannot, and I am truly sorry."

"I told the truth about what happened that night," Gomez continued. "That's all I have to say about that."
Link said it was "ridiculous" to say that Gomez did not know what he was doing.

"He knew he was shooting an officer when he shot Officer Irwin, and he knew what he was doing when he put his gun inside that automobile and emptied it on Officer De Guzman," Link said.

The judge rejected arguments from Gomez's attorneys that the officers' decision to pursue Gomez the night of the shooting and the prosecution's decision to pursue the death penalty in his case were based on race.

Arguing that Gomez's life should be spared, defense lawyers Troy Britt and Abram Genser noted that the five most recent death penalty cases in the county involved three White defendants and two Latino defendants, one of whom was Gomez, and that the White defendants were able to strike deals that led to sentences of life in prison without parole.

Deputy District Attorney Valerie Summers said she was "outraged" by the accusation of racial bias.

Link, who presided over the trial, said he took a close and thorough look at the case.

"There is no evidence here showing that any officer in the case or the District Attorney's Office has shown any bias in charging Mr. Gomez nor any evidence that he was convicted because of bias," Link said.

In addition to the death sentence, the judge also sentenced Gomez to 65 years to life for shooting Irwin and for being a felon in possession of a gun.

After Link made his ruling, San Diego police Chief David Nisleit issued a statement thanking the judge, jury and prosecutors in the case, and said his thoughts were with De Guzman's family and with Irwin.

"The verdict and sentence cannot undo the pain, nor will it bring JD back, but I hope there is some solace in the judge and jury's decision," Nisleit said.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in the state during his time in office.

That does not bar a judge from issuing a sentence of death, nor does it preclude prosecutors from continuing to pursue capital punishment in current cases.

Aside from Gomez, there is a second local case in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The defendant is Cesar Alvarado, who is accused of killing a man mistaken for an undercover police officer and shooting and paralyzing a 19-year-old woman during a two-week crime spree in 2018. Alvarado is awaiting trial.

As of Friday, there were 693 inmates on death row in California. Not including Gomez, 36 of them were sent there from San Diego County. The last was Derlyn Threats, now 40, convicted of killing a young Vista mother during a home burglary in 2005.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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