EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected to clarify that while a jury has recommended the death penalty in this case, a judge will have final say on the sentencing.
SAN DIEGO — A jury unanimously recommended the death penalty Thursday in the murder trial of Jesse Michael Gomez, who was convicted in the July 2016 killing of a San Diego police officer and the shooting of his partner.
After his conviction earlier this month, the question faced by the jury: Should Gomez receive a death sentence or life in prison without parole?
The decision was unanimous, each juror told the judge, to approve the death penalty for the officer’s killer. The judge will now consider whether or not to accept the jury’s recommendation. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reports, it is highly unusual — but not unprecedented — for a judge to contradict a jury’s decision in a capital case.
While use of the death penalty is under a moratorium in California, prosecutors have still sought the sentence in certain cases with the possibility of that policy being reversed in the future. The ban on capital punishment went into effect via a Gov. Gavin Newsom executive order in 2019 and will last at least for the remainder of his term in office.
Gomez, 60, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the July 28, 2016, shooting of Jonathan “J.D.” De Guzman, 43, in the Shelltown neighborhood.
The jury also found Gomez guilty in the attempted murder of De Guzman’s partner, Wade Irwin, as well as a count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. 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.
The officers had been working in the area of Acacia Grove Way around 11 p.m. the night of the shooting when they spotted Gomez and another man split up and walk separate ways on the sidewalk, prosecutors said.
The partners trailed Gomez in their vehicle for a time, then Irwin got out and asked something to the effect of, “Do you live around here?” That’s when Gomez opened fire, police say, hitting Irwin in the throat and then walking toward the police car and firing on De Guzman, killing him.
Irwin’s opening question to Gomez became a critical part of the gunman’s failed defense: He testified on his own behalf in the trial, insisting he thought the pair of officers were gang members who were about to kill him. Gomez said questioning where someone was from was typical of a gang confrontation, and that the headlights of the officers’ vehicle blinded him. Fearing for his life after seeing a strange vehicle trailing him, Gomez said, he tried to defend himself.
Deputy District Attorney Valerie Summers called Gomez’s narrative “utterly unbelievable” and said the officers did nothing to provoke the shooting. The jury agreed, finding Gomez guilty and setting up Thursday’s sentencing recommendation.
City News Service contributed to this report.