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Judge overturns Newsom’s decision to deny parole to man who fatally shot SDPD officer in 1978

More than four decades after San Diego police Officer Archie Buggs was fatally shot during a traffic stop, a Superior Court judge has overruled Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to deny parole to the shooter.

In a ruling dated April 22, San Diego Superior Court Judge David Gill said Newsom’s reasoning in reversing a state parole board’s decision to grant Jesus Cecena parole was not supported by the evidence. The judge added that the governor has effectively denied Cecena a “meaningful opportunity” to be released from state prison on parole as called for by state law and the U.S. Constitution.

Gill ordered the parole board to proceed with releasing Cecena. The board had determined in 2020 — for a fifth time in recent years — that Cecena did not pose a threat to the public.

It is unclear when Cecena could be released. He remained held in Valley State Prison in Madera County as of Tuesday.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said he will be released some time next month. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the state prisons, said it was awaiting a copy of the ruling before proceeding with Cecena’s release.

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The District Attorney’s Office, which on Tuesday announced the latest development in the case, called on Newsom to direct the state attorney general to appeal the ruling.

Local prosecutors and police officials have long campaigned against parole for Cecena.

District Attorney Summer Stephan issued a statement Tuesday, saying she respectfully disagreed with Gill’s ruling.

“Cecena has a long history of minimizing, denying, displacing blame and contradicting himself in an effort to avoid accepting responsibility for his execution style conduct,” Stephan said. “Without accepting full responsibility for the true nature of this crime, he continues to present a clear and unacceptable danger to our community.”

She called the murder of Buggs cold-blooded and said it devastated his family, the San Diego Police Department and the larger community. “The very nature of the crime was not only callous, but inexplicably senseless, and it demonstrated a total disregard for human life and disdain for those in a position of authority,” Stephan said.

Cecena’s attorney, Tracy Renee Lum, issued a statement to the Union-Tribune in response to the ruling.

“I do not condone violence against law enforcement, and I have the utmost respect for Officer Buggs and his family and their loss,” Lum said. “I also believe in rehabilitation and the rule of law. I am grateful for the court’s decision and believe that it is the correct one.”

Cecena, now 61, has been in prison since September 1979. On five occasions in recent years, he was granted parole, but each decision was overturned, first by former Gov. Jerry Brown and more recently by Newsom.

Cecena was 17 years old and a gang member when he shot Buggs in the Skyline neighborhood on Nov. 4, 1978. The 30-year-old officer had pulled over Cecena for speeding. As Buggs wrote a ticket, a passenger handed Cecena a gun.

Cecena shot the officer four times. The final time Cecena shot Buggs in the head at point-blank range as the officer lay on the ground. Buggs died on the street, his hand on his revolver.

“It wasn’t anything accidental,” Jesse Navarro said Tuesday, recalling the shooting that killed his partner and friend. In 1978 Navarro was a police officer who worked alongside Buggs in southeastern San Diego. He later worked for the District Attorney’s Office in community relations.

He called the judge’s recent ruling “very, very disappointing.”

In a previous interview, Navarro explained that before he and Buggs started work the night of Nov. 3, 1978 — shortly before the clock hit midnight— a supervisor asked to speak with Navarro. Buggs left the police substation first, saying he would cover Navarro’s beat until he got there.

Navarro was delayed again when he picked up an intoxicated person walking on a freeway. Then he heard over his police radio that an officer was down in the 7800 block of Skyline Avenue.

He knew right away that it was Buggs. And when he heard descriptions of the suspects and their vehicle, he knew who was responsible.

“I’ve always called it a premeditated execution by Cecena,” said Navarro, now 75. “They had been talking about killing a cop. Every time I stopped (Cecena and other members of the gang) they talked about killing me or killing my partner.”

Cecena was tried as an adult and sentenced in 1979 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the murder, his sentence was modified in 1982 to allow him a chance at parole, which he was first granted in 2014. The board at the time pointed to his changed life in prison, where he left behind gang life, became a committed Christian, completed several vocational training programs and received laudatory reports from officials.

Psychiatric exams have concluded he is at low risk of reoffending.

Over the years, however, governors — first Brown, then Newsom — argued that Cecena had not acknowledged that the shooting was an execution. In June 2020, Cecena acknowledged for the first time that he did execute Buggs.

In October 2020, after a parole board granted Cecena parole for a fifth time, Newsom pointed to a new reason: the governor said Cecena had not acknowledged that he shot Buggs to gain prominence in the gang to which he belonged.

Cecena has said during parole hearings that he had a poor relationship with his father, and shot Buggs out of fear his father would punish him for getting in trouble and hanging out with a gang member, who was in the car with him.

In October, Cecena filed a petition challenging Newsom’s most recent decision to deny parole to Cecena.

In his ruling, Gill said Newsom failed to show evidence that the murder was “gang-motivated.” He noted that Cecena in 2020 stated that he did not go out that night with the intent to kill a police officer to boost his status in the gang.

Even if Cecena had intended to kill the officer for that reason, Gill said, Newsom failed to show how that would make Cecena a danger to the public, as Newsom has argued. Gill noted that Cecena swore off gang life about 10 years after the shooting and that an assessment in 2018 indicated Cecena showed no signs of violent ideation.

Gill also said Newsom failed, as required by law, to give considerable weight to the fact that Cecena was underage when he killed Buggs. Case law indicates that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole — “or a functional equivalent” — for a juvenile offender is a violation of the Eight Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, Gill said.

The judge said the governor’s stance has transmuted Cecena’s sentence into one of life without the possibility of parole, and has not afforded Cecena a meaningful opportunity for release.

Editor Dana Littlefield contributed to this report.



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