An appeals court Monday upheld the second-degree murder conviction of a man who caused the death of a Cathedral City police officer during a drug- and alcohol-fueled high-speed chase in a stolen car.
Durjan Germaine Gray, 42, was convicted in 2016 in the death of Officer Jermaine Gibson during a vehicle pursuit on the night of March 18, 2011. Gibson’s patrol car crashed into a tree as he and other officers pursued Gray from Cathedral City to Palm Springs.
Gray, who was also found guilty of DUI gross vehicular manslaughter, felony evading and DUI, was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.
Gray fled from Gibson after the 28-year-old officer attempted to stop him for making an illegal U-turn on Date Palm Drive. Another Cathedral City police officer, Alfredo Luna, joined the pursuit, and he and Gibson sped after the defendant, who pushed the stolen Ford Mustang to 100 mph on city streets with the headlights turned off.
Gray — high on marijuana, methamphetamine and alcohol — crossed into Palm Springs within a couple of minutes and attempted to accelerate through a curve near South Palm Canyon Drive and Morongo Road. Gibson was unable to negotiate the bend and slammed into a palm tree.
Gray lost control of his vehicle and also crashed nearby.
Luna came upon the fiery crash a second or two after it happened. The Mustang had crashed nearby. The defendant and his 47-year-old passenger, Dexter Coleman, were both thrown clear of the car, leaving both with moderate injuries.
Luna testified he ran to Gibson’s burning patrol car as three other officers arrived to assist. They used their batons in an attempt to pry open the doors — to no avail — and tried to subdue the flames with fire extinguishers, but the car was engulfed in a matter of seconds, according to witnesses.
Luna said one officer used his patrol unit in an attempt to dislodge Gibson’s vehicle from the tree, but the car was literally wrapped around it.
The officers managed to smash out the windows, and Luna was able to get hold of Gibson’s arms, he recalled during a 2013 preliminary hearing. Luna said that when the flames engulfed the front half of the car and reached Gibson’s legs, he had to pull away because the heat was searing his hands, arms and face.
Gray’s appeal attorneys argued that references to two prior evading arrest convictions were prejudicial towards his case and that Gibson’s potentially reckless driving may have contributed to his death.
A three-justice panel from California’s 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the trial court was correct to allow references to his prior evading convictions, as they “were relevant to the issue of intent.”
Gray argued that the circumstances in the two convictions and the pursuit with Gibson were dissimilar and not shared with the jury, though they should have been to justify their relevance in including them into evidence.
The panel responded that details like the number of officers involved or the distance traveled during the pursuit were less important than the fact that he evaded police in all three situations, and ruled that the trial court was justified in allowing those convictions into evidence.
The panel also ruled that even if jurors had found Gibson partially responsible for his own death, it would not have overridden their finding that Gray caused Gibson’s death, per their convictions on both murder and manslaughter counts.
The trial prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Anthony Orlando, told jurors Gray made a conscious decision to ignore pursuing officers and continue fleeing in hopes of avoiding capture, resulting in the crash that killed Gibson.
“He (Gray) didn’t care,” Orlando said. “His main job was to get away and the community be damned, Officer Gibson be damned.”
Gray’s attorney, Greg Johnson, argued the evidence supported, at best, a manslaughter conviction.
Johnson said the prosecution did not prove that Gray acted with “implied malice,” which would indicate that he caused a death by knowingly acting dangerously and without regard for the welfare of others.
“His intent was simply to get away,” Johnson said. “He didn’t want to hurt anybody. He didn’t want to kill anybody.”
Orlando insisted, however, that Gray alone was to blame for Gibson’s death and should be convicted of murder.
Speaking to the principle of implied malice, Orlando said Gray’s reckless driving endangered the lives of officers and civilians in Cathedral City and Palm Springs, and that his two previous convictions for evading should have made him cognizant of the danger he was putting people in.
Gibson, a Beaumont resident, had been with the Cathedral City Police Department about 18 months and previously worked as a reserve officer with the Desert Hot Springs Police Department.
The former U.S. Marine served two tours of duty in Iraq, where he was awarded a Purple Heart. He was survived by a wife and infant son and was buried with full honors at Riverside National Cemetery.