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Killer of San Diego officer in 1978 up for parole again under juvenile-offender law

Killer of San Diego officer in 1978 up for parole again under juvenile-offender law
At left is a recent photo of Jesus Cecena, who as a 17-year-old gang member killed San Diego Police Officer Archie Buggs, right, on Nov. 4, 1978. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; San Diego Police Department)

For the second time in 16 months, a onetime gang member convicted in the 1978 killing of San Diego Police Officer Archie Buggs is set for a parole hearing.

The hearing will again be held under a new state law that makes it easier for inmates sentenced for crimes committed as juveniles to be freed.

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In April 2014, a parole panel recommended that Jesus Cecena be granted parole under SB 260, which allows such panels to give "great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles."

The panel noted that Cecena, despite early involvement with a prison gang, has become a model prisoner and has offers of jobs and community support if freed.

But in September that recommendation was rejected by Gov. Jerry Brown, who agreed with San Diego prosecutors and police that Cecena still poses a threat to the public and has not taken full responsibility for gunning down Buggs after a routine traffic stop.

The hearing for Cecena, now 54, is set for Aug. 28 at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, where he is an inmate.

The panel is expected to make its recommendation the day of the hearing. If it recommends parole, the issue is sent to the governor, who has several months to decide.

Cecena was arrested just hours after killing Buggs, 30, an Army veteran who had served in Vietnam and was one of the few African Americans on the San Diego department. Cecena was four months shy of 18 years old.

Cecena's parole is strenuously opposed by Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and a long list of current and retired officers. Cecena is "a cold-blooded killer who poses a clear danger," Zimmerman wrote.

On Thursday, Dumanis announced that she will take the unusual step of attending the parole hearing along with Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Sachs, who represents the district attorney's office at parole hearings for inmates serving life sentences.

The killing of Buggs "devastated the officer's family, his department and our community," Dumanis wrote in a letter to the parole board.

But Cecena's attorney, Tracy Lum, argues her client has been rehabilitated during nearly 37 years in prison, has taken responsibility for the crime and that keeping him behind bars "is cruel and unusual."

Before the 2014 hearing under the standards of SB 260, Cecena had a dozen parole hearings and had been turned down.

In many of those hearings, he offered different explanations of what happened on the night of Nov. 4, 1978, in the Skyline neighborhood of San Diego, a fact that Dumanis and Sachs plan to stress to the parole panel.

Cecena had been drinking beer and smoking marijuana laced with PCP when he and a fellow gang member were pulled over by Buggs.

Prosecutors assert that after firing five shots at Buggs, Cecena fired a sixth shot at point-blank range into Buggs' temple as the officer lay dying in the gutter.

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Cecena "gunned down an on-duty police officer ... and then coldly walked up to his prone body and fired an execution shot into his head at point blank range," Dumanis wrote.

Cecena's refusal to admit firing that final shot shows that he does not take full responsibility for the "ruthless, senseless" murder, Dumanis said. The governor made that point in rejecting last year's parole recommendation.

Lum asserts that prosecutors are distorting the evidence and that the autopsy report and trial testimony by people who heard the shots don't support these "inflammatory allegations."

"It could have just as easily been Officer Buggs who fired a final shot before he passed away or it could have been a car in the area backfiring," Lum wrote.

Dumanis points out that the trial judge and an appellate court noted the final shot fired into Buggs.

In his letter rejecting the parole recommendation, Brown said, "because Mr. Cecena has not confronted the true nature of his actions, I do not believe he is ready to be released."

Lum responds that her client "is no longer the immature 17-year-old gang member that executed Officer Buggs. He is now a mature, 54-year-old man."

Trial testimony indicated that Cecena had been handed a gun by his fellow gang member Jose Arteaga, who was 20 when Buggs was killed. Like Cecena, Arteaga was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He is expected to have a parole hearing later this year or early next year.

The newest parole hearing for Cecena comes as the San Diego Police Officers Assn. and the San Diego Black Police Officers Assn. have called for Robert E. Lee Elementary School in San Diego to be renamed in honor of Buggs.

For more San Diego news, follow @LATsandiego on Twitter.

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