SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A man shot two San Diego police officers, killing one of them, because he feared another potential stint behind bars, a prosecutor said Thursday, while a defense attorney alleged his client reasonably believed he was being hunted by gang members when he opened fire on the lawmen.
Closing arguments were delivered Thursday in the murder trial of Jesse Michael Gomez, 60, who is charged with shooting Officer Jonathan "J.D." De Guzman, 43, and fellow gang-unit Officer Wade Irwin in the Shelltown neighborhood 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 hospitalized for nearly a month for a gunshot to the throat.
If Gomez is convicted of murder, plus a special circumstance allegation of killing a police officer, he will face another phase of the trial to determine whether he receives the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors say the officers were patrolling Acacia Grove Way when they spotted Gomez and another man split up and start walking along the north and south sidewalks of the street.
After following Gomez at slow speeds in their patrol car, Irwin testified that he got out of the vehicle and asked him something to the effect of "Do you live in the area?"
Gomez, who testified on his own behalf, said he did not realize the men who approached him were law enforcement and instead thought they were gang members poised to kill him.
He testified that he only recognized that a car with its fog lights on was following him, but said that he found the manner in which it was traveling "pretty suspicious."
After the car stopped, Gomez testified that the headlights turned on, obscuring his vision, and a man got out and asked him, "Where are you from?"
According to Gomez, that question is a common gang challenge, which in his experience growing up in Shelltown means a violent encounter is soon to follow.
He testified that, fearing for his life, he opened fire on the "silhouette" of the man who posed the question, as well as the car. When asked to describe what was running through his mind at the time, he said, "I thought gang members were going to shoot and kill me."
Irwin testified that Gomez faced him with an "angry, hateful look on his face," then "immediately" raised his hand and shot him in the throat, before walking toward the police car and firing multiple times on De Guzman.
Deputy District Attorney Valerie Summers called Gomez's narrative "utterly unbelievable" and said the officers did nothing to provoke the use of lethal force.
She alleged that Gomez, who had prior run-ins with the law and was illegally carrying a firearm when he was contacted, shot the officers because he was not going to risk going to jail again.
One of Gomez's attorneys, Troy Britt, argued that Gomez acted in self- defense given what information he had at the time.
Britt argued that a car "creeping" up behind someone and the "Where are you from?" question might mean little to most people, but present a vastly different meaning to someone like Gomez, who grew up in a violent gang environment.
"This is a self-defense case where Mr. Gomez reacted based on his life experiences," Britt told the jury.
Britt said that it was reasonable for Gomez not to realize police were following him from behind, as the officers did not identify themselves as law enforcement, or activate their emergency lights or spotlights.
He also said that if Gomez thought he was going to be caught by police while carrying a gun, he had ample opportunity to ditch the firearm along the roadway, but didn't.
Summers argued that Gomez was well aware that the approaching car was a police vehicle, citing testimony from Irwin, who said Gomez looked directly at the car, then over his shoulder at the police vehicle multiple times while walking down the street.
She argued that Gomez and the other man had previously taken part in a meth transaction, prompting them to split up when they spotted law enforcement.
She also rejected defense arguments that the street was too dark for Gomez to be able to properly identify the patrol car, while Britt said several officers had previously testified at Gomez's preliminary hearing that the street was dark, but changed their stories at trial.
After De Guzman was shot, Irwin drew his gun and fired on the shooter, who was running eastbound, according to the prosecution.
A blood trail from the shooting scene led police to Gomez, who was taken into custody in a ravine off South 38th Street, a short distance from the scene, and hospitalized with a gunshot wound to his upper body.