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Parole Board recommends release, again, for man who killed San Diego officer in 1978

Jesus Salvador Cecena
(California Department of Corrections)

Jesus Cecena was a teenager when he was convicted of killing Officer Archie Buggs during a traffic stop. This is the fifth time since 2014 the parole board voted to let him out, but each time the governor has overturned that decision

For the fifth time in the last six years, a state Parole Board has approved release of Jesus Cecena, who was convicted of killing San Diego Police Officer Archie Buggs in 1978.

Cecena, 59, was cleared for parole after a hearing at Valley State Prison outside of Fresno on Wednesday. His parole was opposed by the San Diego County district attorney.

But Cecena, who was 17 years old at the time of the crime, is not assured release. Under state law all parole grants by the board given to any inmate serving a life sentence are automatically reviewed by the governor, who can overrule the grant.

That is what has happened each time Cecena was approved for parole in 2014, 2015, 2017 and again in 2018. Each time the grant was overruled, the first three by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the last by Gov. Gavin Newsom in January 2019.

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The governors cited largely the same reason for overturning the board decision — their assessment that Cecena had not fully explained or come to terms with his actions the night Buggs was killed.

Newsom now has 150 days to review the case and either allow the parole grant to stand or, once again, overturn it.

Cecena, a member at the time of a Skyline gang, shot Buggs to death during a routine traffic stop the evening of Nov. 4, 1978. After being convicted of first-degree murder at a trial the following year, he was sentenced to life without parole — a sentence that was modified to life with parole in 1982 after an appellate court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to no-parole terms.

A key issue in all Cecena’s parole hearings has been whether he essentially executed Buggs or, as Cecena has said, he fired blindly and in a panic after the traffic stop. Prosecutors have said Buggs suffered one close-range wound to his head and contend it is evidence of a deliberate shot delivered as Cecena stood over the prone officer near his police car.

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After being denied parole 14 times Cecena earned his first grant for release in 2014. The board at that time pointed to his changed life in prison. Cecena was a member of a prison gang in his first years in custody, but then disavowed that connection and left the gang. At a parole hearing in 2017 it was revealed he had been stabbed twice by gang members in retaliation for that.

Cecena became a committed Christian, completed several vocational training programs for jobs outside prison, and received laudatory reports from prison officials. Psychiatric exams have concluded he is at low risk of reoffending. He married while behind bars.

Buggs was a revered member of the department. In a statement Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan called on Newsom to reverse the grant.

“We are deeply disappointed that the killer of one of San Diego’s finest officers was granted parole,” she said in a news release. “This crime impacted the entire San Diego community and caused great pain for the family of Officer Archie Buggs.

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“This fallen officer was so respected by the law enforcement community that a substation was named after him. We are hopeful that Governor Newsom will review this parole grant and reverse it once again to keep this killer incarcerated.”

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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