The decision made Friday marks the fourth time in the past five years that the Governor’s Office has reversed the decision by parole board members to allow the 57-year-old Cecena out of prison. Newsom’s predecessor Gov. Jerry Brown overturned parole board rulings granting Cecena release three times, in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Cecena 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.
Between 1986 and 2012 he was denied parole 14 times, but in 2014 — citing his turnaround in prison where he disavowed gang life, became a devout Christian and model prisoner — the board cleared him for release. Under California law, parole grants to any inmate serving a life sentence are automatically reviewed by the governor, who can affirm, reverse, modify, order a new hearing with a larger panel, or take no action on the grant.
In his three-page letter, Newsom echoed many of the same arguments Brown used to keep Cecena locked up. Those include the conclusion that Newsom does not believe Cecena has “sufficiently explained his callous actions on the night of this crime.” The governor noted that Cecena had said at parole hearings he was fearful the night of the shooting that, after being stopped by Buggs, his father would find out he had been drinking, using drugs and was in a gang. Cecena had a fraught relationship with his father and said he was afraid of what would happen to him.
Newsom rejected that reasoning. “Many children have strained relationships with their parents and fear disappointing them, but exceptionally few would respond to these feelings by intentionally murdering a uniformed police officer,” he wrote.
He also said Cecena has continued to insist he fired repeatedly and quickly at Buggs, but has denied that he deliberately fired the final shot into Buggs’ head at close range, execution-style. Newsom said that both trial testimony and evidence from the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office contradict that.
Prosecutors say Buggs had a single, close-range wound in his head and there was blood and other evidence on the patrol car next to where Buggs fell.
“Mr. Cecena’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the true nature of his attack on Officer Buggs further indicates he is unsuitable for parole,” Newsom wrote.
In a news release, District Attorney Summer Stephan welcomed Newsom’s decision. Her office and the San Diego Police Officers Association along with other law enforcement groups had pressured the governor to keep Cecena in prison.
“This defendant killed an on-duty police officer in cold blood and in spite of his claims to the contrary, he still lacks honest insight and remorse into this heinous crime,” Stephan said in the statement. “We appreciate the Governor's thoughtful analysis and ultimate decision to reverse parole and safeguard the public.”
Cecena’s parole attorney, Tracy Lum, who has convinced the board to grant release four times now, did not respond to an email requesting comment on Wednesday. However, she said in an interview last year that Cecena has done everything required of him inside prison and deserves to be released.
Psychiatric exams have concluded he is at low risk of committing another crime.
“I’ve worked with thousands of inmates,” Lum said. “He is the most suitable inmate for parole now walking the yard.”
She also said that this time around may be Cecena’s best chance for release — because Brown, who had championed reform of the criminal justice system including massive changes to prisons and parole, was at the end of his term and his career in public life. Making the politically perilous decision of releasing a police officer’s killer could be easier for the outgoing and retiring governor.
The parole board made its decision in August. Under state rules, that decision was reviewed internally by corrections officials for four months, then sent to the governor. It landed on Brown’s desk by Dec. 23. He had 30 days to decide what to do, but did not do so before leaving office Jan. 7.
Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said Newsom made the correct decision.
“No one wins when the worst of the worst get let out,” he said Wednesday.
Cecena is next up for a parole hearing in February 2020. In a phone interview from Valley State Prison last summer, he said he was remorseful and ashamed of killing Buggs, and the pain and grief he caused the officer’s families and colleagues.
He also said he did not execute Buggs with a final shot.
“I could have said that I fired that final shot to his head, that would clear up a lot of this,” he said. “But that is not what happened. I am not going to change my story to make it their truth.”
Over the years, Cecena has completed training for jobs, received consistently laudatory assessments by prison officials and been active in prison programs. Remarkably, he has not had a disciplinary offense since 1987. That was when a religious conversion turned around his life. He dropped out of a Mexican prison gang he had joined when arriving in custody at that time and never went back, at some personal cost: at a parole hearing in 2017 it was revealed he has been stabbed at least twice in retaliation by the gang and was in protective custody.
In the interview, Cecena said he wanted to be released — he has married and said he would not return to San Diego, even though he has family here. He also said he was prepared to remain inside, where he participates in a variety of programs warning youths against crime and another in which he meets with spouses of murdered police officers.
“At this point in my life, I’m not doing things for the board and not for myself,” he said. “I’m doing things to help others and enable me to continue to be a good person. Whatever the governor decides is not going to stop me from being on the path I am on today.”