Parole board recommends release of Calif. cop killer
The decision marks the third time since 2014 that a parole board has cleared the way for Jesus Cecena to be released
By Greg Moran
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — A state Parole Board on Thursday recommended release from prison for Jesus Cecena, who was convicted of murdering San Diego Police Officer Archie Buggs during a traffic stop more than three decades ago.
The decision marks the third time since 2014 that a Parole Board has cleared the way for Cecena to be released. Twice before, in 2014 and 2015, that decision was subsequently overturned by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Now Brown will have to again decide if it is time for Cecena, who was 17 at the time of the shooting and is now a graying 55-year-old man with bad knees, should get out of prison.
The decision came after a four-hour hearing in a windowless room inside the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, where Cecena is an inmate. It is also likely to spur an outcry from law enforcement organizations — just as it did in 2014 and 2015 when the board acted similarly, and those groups called on Brown to overturn the decision.
Likewise the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, which argued to keep Cecena in prison, will also contest the decision.
“We are going to continue to fight this, to raise our appeals to the governor,” said Chief Deputy Summer Stephan, who attended the hearing to speak on behalf of the Buggs family.
Brown’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what action the governor might take.
Cecena, 55, was convicted of murdering Buggs during a routine traffic stop the in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 1978. He was caught a few hours later along with an accomplice, Jose Arteaga.
Cecena was convicted of first-degree murder. He was tried as an adult and sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole in 1979.
A few years later, in 1982, an appellate court modified the sentence because Cecena was under 18 when he committed the crime, and made him eligible for parole.
Cecena appeared to fight back tears when Commissioner Michele Minor announced after a 40-minute deliberation that he was being granted parole. He had broken down twice during the session, once when he was describing fatally shooting Buggs, and again when Stephan played a 1999 tape recording of Buggs’s mother Lizzie Buggs talking about the impact of his death.
The commission pointed to several factors weighing in Cecena’s favor. He was a juvenile at the time and commissioners considered his lack of maturity when he shot Buggs. Minor also took note of his time in prison. “He has shown growth,” she said.
He was a member of a Mexican prison gang until 1987, when a religous conversion turned around his life. He had also been a member of a small San Diego street gang when the killing occurred.
He quit the gang — or “debriefed” as the prison system puts it — and not gone back, at some personal cost. Commissioner Tim O’Hara noted that he has been stabbed at least twice in retaliation by the gang and is in protective custody.
Minor also said Cecena has trained for jobs, received consistently laudatory assessments by prison officials, and been active in prison programs.Remarkably, he has not had a disciplinary offense since 1987.
However, the board was not completely impressed. O’Hara flatly told Cecena that he thinks he lied Thursday about key elements of Bugg’s killing when he testified.
Cecena, who shot Buggs six times with a .38 gun, said he killed him in a kind of panic, afraid his father would become enraged when he found out he had been stopped by police while riding with another gang member.
He said he had never fired a gun before, and denied shooting Buggs in the head with the final shot while the officer was prone. Both claims, O’Hara said, don’t ring true.
He said it was “nonsense to me that you were worried about your Dad, so you shot a cop six times,” he said.
“We don’t think you are being completely truthful with us,” O’Hara said.
In the end, however, commissioners said that based on who Cecena is now and the work he has done in prison he is no longer a threat to public safety. That reason, coupled with others about his life inside, was enough to give him parole.
That decision is far from final. Another unit of the Board of Parole will automatically review the parole grant. And then Brown will weigh in. Under state law the governor reviews all parole grants given to inmates serving life sentences, and has the power to overturn the board’s decision.
In reversing board decisions on Cecena in the past Brown has said he was not convinced Cecena had yet to “confront the true nature of his actions,” In January 2016 denial Brown said he believed Cecena was “whitewashing” the extent of his actions in murdering Buggs.
Another controversy surfaced in the wake of that second decision by Brown denying parole. Retired Superior Court Judge Allen Preckel, who prosecuted the case against Cecena when he was a deputy district attorney, said that Jesse Navarro — Buggs’s friend and former patrol partner who now works for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office — had made false statements to the board.
Navarro had said that Cecena, who was a member of a street gang, had threatened he and Buggs on many occasions before the shooting. Preckel said no such evidence ever existed. Cecena too denied it.
The parole board eventually conducted an investigation to see whether Navarro’s statements could be corroborated. A report issued in December concluded some statements Navarro made could be indirectly corroborated, but said there was no documentation backing them up and several people involved in the case refuted them.
Navarro did not attend the hearing Thursday.
Copyright 2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune