A Fresno murder trial began Wednesday with accusations from a defense attorney that the wrong man is being tried and the prosecution contending the defendant made incriminating statements that put him at the scene of the crime.
Ernie Chanmany, 23, of Fresno is accused in Fresno County Superior Court of using an assault rifle to kill 16-year-old Sammy Mercado of Sanger and burying him in a shallow grave.
If convicted of murder, Chanmany could face life in prison.
Mercado was killed during the early hours of April 12, 2012 while he and two friends tried to steal plants from a marijuana field that belonged to Chanmany, prosecutor Ron Wells said Wednesday in opening statements.
But Chanmany's attorney, Eric Green, told the jury that Michael Voravong, who was guarding the marijuana field, killed Mercado.
Voravong, 31, was initially charged with murdering Mercado and growing marijuana, but those charges were dropped once authorities captured Chanmany in Utah in October 2012 with 110 pounds of marijuana.
Once arrested, Chanmany made incriminating statements to Fresno County sheriff's detectives and led them to Mercado's decomposed body, which was buried in an orange grove at Thompson and Butler Avenues southeast of Fresno, Wells said.
The Fresno County District Attorney's Office has never explained why it dropped murder and marijuana cultivation against Voravong, and accessory and marijuana charges against his brother, Marshall Voravong, 30.
But Charles Magill, attorney for Michael Voravong, said after the charges were dismissed in April 2013 that ballistics tests and DNA evidence never linked the Voravongs to the assault rifle used in the shooting.
Wednesday, much of the evidence was not in dispute.
Mercado and two friends, whom Wells referred to as "three knuckleheads," drove to a farm near Annadale and Willow avenues southeast of Fresno. The property was leased to Chanmany's family, Wells said.
Once the youths left their sport-utility vehicle to grab the marijuana plants, gunfire erupted, Wells said. Fearing they would be killed, Mercado's two friends fled in the SUV, leaving Mercado behind.
When Mercado didn't return home, his family filed a missing person's report. Once Sanger police learned it could be a homicide, the investigation was turned over to sheriff's detectives, who tracked down the two friends who were with Mercado when he was shot.
One friend told detectives that Asian men fired at them. Detectives then went to the farm on April 14, 2012, and found blood along with 16 shell casings from an assault rifle. But the case soon went cold until Chanmany was arrested in Utah, Wells said.
On Oct. 20, 2012, Chanmany helped detectives find Mercado's grave. He told detectives that he didn't shoot Mercado but helped the Voravong brothers bury the body, Wells said. "He admits to being there when Sammy was shot and he admits to using a shovel to dig the hole," Wells told the jury.
But Green said his client isn't the killer. "Obviously he is growing and selling marijuana," Green said. "But the key question is whether he aided and abetted in the killing."
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