A jury who previously convicted a gang member of murdering a peace officer must now decide whether the man should be given the death penalty for shooting the San Diego police officer and his partner in 2016.
The jury heard days of testimony from loved ones and coworkers of San Diego Police officer Jonathan "J.D" De Guzman as prosecutors attempted to convince them that convicted killer Jesse Gomez should be sentenced to death for shooting the gang-unit officer at point-blank range and critically injuring his partner, Officer Wade Irwin, by shooting him in the neck.
Gomez's defense team argued that the defendant did not deserve to die but instead should be given life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After hearing closing arguments in the penalty phase, the jury on Tuesday began deliberations and will now decide Gomez's fate. A verdict was not reached on Wednesday.
July 28, 2016: SDPD Officers De Guzman, Irwin Shot in Line of Duty
On the night of July 28, 2016, De Guzman, 43, and his fellow SDPD gang unit partner, Irwin, were patrolling the Shelltown neighborhood of San Diego.
At Gomez’s preliminary hearing in 2019, Irwin testified that as he and De Guzman patrolled, they noticed two men split up and start walking along the north and south sidewalks of Acacia Grove Way.
Irwin said he thought the man on the south side was someone else he had previously arrested. De Guzman stopped the car and Irwin got out of the passenger side, leaving the door open.
Irwin approached the man – Gomez – and asked if he lived in the area. Irwin testified in 2019 that upon speaking to Gomez, the officers were shot “almost immediately.”
The officer said Gomez walked up to the open passenger door of the SDPD patrol car and fired, point-blank, at De Guzman as he sat in the driver’s seat. Prosecutors have said the attack on De Guzman happened so quickly, he didn’t even have time to draw his service weapon.
Gomez took off running; Irwin – also wounded – grabbed his service gun and fired on Gomez.
Gomez was found a short time later in a ravine off South 38th Street near the scene. He was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to his upper body but survived.
De Guzman was beloved by his colleagues and family. In 2003, the officer survived a stabbing while on duty, and was awarded a Purple Heart by the department for his valor. Even after that incident, De Guzman returned to the force and his passion to protect the public never wavered.
Irwin returned to duty in June 2017, less than a year after the deadly shooting.
The shootings of the officers jolted San Diego.
The Trial of Jesse Gomez: August and September 2021
On day one of the trial, the jury watched dramatic body camera video of officers desperately trying to save their colleagues. The video showed the first officer arriving on scene minutes after De Guzman and Irwin were shot.
Officer Irwin took the stand on Aug. 24, 2021, and provided emotional testimony about the night he thought he would die.
“I immediately began thinking about my 18-month-old daughter,” Irwin said on the stand in a San Diego courtroom. “Started thinking about my wife, started thinking about my family. I believed at that time, if the defendant saw that I was alive, I would be executed. I was concerned for my partner and his safety; I didn’t want to die.”
Gomez took the stand in his trial on Sept. 2.
He testified that he thought De Guzman and Irwin were gang members – not police officers – when he opened fire on them.
Gomez and his defense team do not deny that he shot the two gang-unit officers. But they argue he should not face the special circumstance allegation because he did not know he was shooting at law enforcement.
Gomez said when he was approached by Irwin that night, he couldn't see anything but a shadowy figure. Then, he heard a voice.
Defense attorney Jessica Petry said in her opening statement that in a dangerous neighborhood like San Diego's Shelltown, when someone asks where someone is from, the question usually ends in a violent encounter.
"The way they approached me. I mean, it happened so fast. It was done within seconds," Gomez said to defense attorney Troy Britt from the witness stand at the San Diego Central Courthouse last week.
"Then, all I heard was, ‘Where you from?’ I thought they were gang members," Gomez said. "I was afraid for my life."
Gomez didn't know "until later on" that he had fired on officers, he said.
“I didn’t know what to do. Then I got shot and I turned and ran,” he testified.
Prosecutors asked Gomez to demonstrate in court how he shot at officers.
Officers Gomez and Irwin were gang unit officers. Gomez was a gang member who had plenty of previous interactions with police, he admitted. The neighborhood where the shooting occurred has been known for gang activity.
But prosecutor Valerie Summers argued in her opening statement that Gomez did know they were officers – that he was a felon in possession of a gun and knew he would go to jail if he was caught. So, she said, he started firing on officers immediately.
On the stand, Gomez denied the accusation. He said he was not afraid to go back to prison as a convicted felon in possession of a gun.
Summers also questioned Gomez's statement that he could not see that the two men who approached him that night were in a black and white patrol vehicle.
Gomez also said he had a hard time remembering the events of the day because he had smoked methamphetamine three or four times that day.
"With each pull of that trigger, that defendant makes a decision, 'Should he live or should he die?' Die. Five more times. 'Should he live or should he die?' Die."
In her closing statement, Summers painted a vivid picture of the night SDPD Officer Jonathan "J.D." De Guzman and Oficer Wade Irwin were shot. She recalled the emotional testimony given by Officer Irwin and the body-worn camera footage that showed fellow officers responding to the scene to save their comrades.
Her forceful tone contrasted that of defense attorney Troy Britt, who made a quiet yet emotional plea to the jury to understand the circumstances of Gomez' life that led him to believe his life was in danger.
“A car was creeping up on him and that might not mean anything to you or I," Britt said. "But for that gentleman, creeping means something very specific. It means somebody’s out hunting. Somebody’s out trying to hurt you. Somebody’s out trying to kill you.”
Britt did not deny that Gomez killed Officer De Guzman, a 16-year veteran of the force, and shot Officer Irwin in the neck, but argued that Gomez did not know they were police officers at the time of the shooting -- a claim Gomez made while testifying last week.
Britt then argued that missteps by the San Diego officers -- not flashing their lights and sirens, not turning on body-worn camera and not announcing themselves to Gomez -- played a part in the acts of that day.
The jury deliberated for less than a day and a half to reach a conclusion in the murder trial. Gomez was found guilty of first-degree murder of a peace officer and guilty of premeditated attempted murder.
The special circumstance allegation of murdering a peace officer sent the trial to the penalty phase where the same jury must decide whether Gomez should get the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although the death penalty is currently abolished in California, the determination could place Gomez on death row.
The penalty phase began on Sept. 16, 2021, with opening statements from prosecutor Valerie Summers and defense attorney Troy Britt.
In the days that followed, several witnesses took the stand to paint the emotional toll left by Gomez's actions. The defense called witnesses to Gomez's life to show how his tribulations led him to where he is.
Days into testimony, De Guzman's widow Jane De Guzman was called to the stand to tell the jury how difficult life has been since the loss of her husband. She said she has struggled to be a single mother.
The emotional testimony concluded and as Jane De Guzman stood from the stand, an outburst from Gomez sent her into uncontrollable tears.
“I’m truly sorry Ms. De Guzman from the bottom of my heart,” said Gomez.
Throughout the trial, Gomez has had family inside the courtroom. At some moments, only one person appeared on his behalf.
The defense also called witnesses in an effort to convince the jury to spare Gomez’s life.
On Oct. 28, closing arguments were made in the penalty phase. The decision will next be handed over to the jury.