Opening statements on Tuesday began what was expected to be a weeks-long murder trial for a man accused of shooting two San Diego police officers, one fatally at point-blank range, more than five years ago.
Jesse Michael Gomez, 60, is charged with murder and attempted murder, plus a special circumstance allegation of murder of a police officer, for allegedly shooting Officer Jonathan "J.D." De Guzman, 43, and fellow gang-unit Officer Wade Irwin in the Shelltown neighborhood south of downtown San Diego on the night of July 28, 2016.
De Guzman, a 16-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, died at a hospital, while Irwin was shot in the neck and hospitalized for nearly a month. Both were part of the gang-unit.
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.
Prosecutor Valerie Summers said in her opening statement that Gomez knew he would go to jail if he was caught with a weapon. That was his motive, she said, so he started firing on officers immediately.
Gomez struck Irwin in his neck just as he was exiting the vehicle, according to Summers. Then, he shot De Guzman, who was seated on the driver's side.
A wounded Irwin was still able to fire his service weapon nine times, striking Gomez twice. A bullet is still lodged in Gomez's body, Summers said.
Gomez's defense attorney, Jessica Petry, does not deny that his client got into a gunfire exchange with officers. But he argues Gomez did not know it was police officers who were approaching that night, and fired because he feared for his life.
Petry said Irwin first asked where Gomez was from instead of announcing he was an officer. In a dangerous neighborhood like Shelltown, the attorney argued, that question usually proceeds violent encounters.
The first thing [Officer Irwin] said is what everyone in Shelltown knows is a gang threat," Petry said. "Jesse Gomez fired that gun because he thought he was going to die."
At the defendant's preliminary hearing in 2019, Irwin testified that as he and De Guzman were patrolling the area, they saw two men split up and start walking along the north and south sidewalks of Acacia Grove Way. Irwin said he believed 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, he said.
Irwin testified that he asked the man if he lived near the area and was shot "almost immediately." He testified the gunman then approached the open passenger door of the patrol car and fired into the vehicle, where De Guzman was sitting.
After De Guzman was shot, Irwin said he drew his gun and fired on the shooter, who was running eastbound.
Gomez was taken into custody in a ravine off South 38th Street, a short distance from the scene, and was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to his upper body.
The defense will argue that Gomez should not be convicted of the special circumstances allegation of murder of a police officer, which could secure Gomez the death penalty.
Petry also argued that because of the chaotic events of the night, the scene was "irreparably trample" and compromised, so the evidence is unreliable.
Gomez, who remains held without bail, could face the death penalty if convicted of the murder count and special circumstance allegation. His trial is expected to last as long as two months.
Both Gomez's family and Officer JD De Guzman's family were in court on Tuesday.