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Death sentence upheld for man convicted of killing Oceanside police officer

Tony Zeppetella.jpg
Oceanside Police Department
Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella in an undated photo.

The California Supreme Court Monday upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of gunning down an Oceanside police officer nearly two decades ago.

Adrian George Camacho, 47, was convicted of first-degree murder for the June 13, 2003, slaying of Officer Tony Zeppetella.

According to the court's ruling, Zeppetella was shot at least 13 times and pistol-whipped as he lay wounded on the ground.

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Along with murder, the jury found two special circumstance allegations true, that Camacho killed a police officer and that he did so to escape arrest.

The ruling states Zeppetella, then 27, approached Camacho's car in the parking lot of a Navy Federal Credit Union on the afternoon of June 13.

During a traffic stop, Camacho opened fire, striking Zeppetella multiple times. The officer was able to return fire and struck Camacho in the knee. As the officer was trying to crawl away, witnesses testified that Camacho pistol whipped Zeppetella in the head, then took the lawman's gun and shot him several more times with Zeppetella's own weapon.

Camacho then fled the scene in Zeppetella's patrol car. He was arrested following a standoff at his mother-in-law's house.

Zeppetella died at a hospital just over an hour after the shooting.

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Prosecutors argued Camacho killed the officer because he wanted to avoid being arrested for possessing drugs and a stolen gun, in addition to driving without a license.

Camacho's defense centered on his mental state during the shooting, which he argued was clouded by drug use. In addition to an ongoing heroin addiction, he had also been using methamphetamine and had been prescribed other drugs by a psychiatrist. This caused him to undergo "a period of delirium and psychosis" during the shooting, according to the ruling.

On appeal, Camacho's attorneys raised several issues, including that a pair of letters he wrote in jail should have been inadmissible.

In the letters, he indicated animosity toward police, which the prosecution alleged were evidence of his lack of remorse for killing Zeppetella.

Other issues raised by Camacho on appeal included the dismissal of a prospective juror who said she opposed the death penalty, the exclusion of certain defense testimony regarding Camacho's drug use and the admissibility of the prosecution's expert witness — a psychiatrist who testified that Camacho was not in a drug-induced delirium when he shot the officer.

Zeppetella is one of four Oceanside police officers killed in the line of duty. The latest such slaying was of Officer Daniel Bessant, who was shot during a traffic stop in 2006.