A Fresno County jury convicted a Fresno man of growing marijuana to sell but could not decide whether he killed a Sanger teen who tried to steal his illegal plants two years ago.
In a blow to the prosecution's case, the jury found Ernie Chanmany, 23, not guilty of first-degree murder in the April 2012 shooting death of 16-year-old Sammy Mercado.
The jurors then told Superior Court Judge Denise Whitehead they were split 8-4 on a second-degree murder charge.
Because the jury was deadlocked, prosecutor Ron Wells told the judge he plans to retry Chanmany again on the murder charge.
But Chanmany's lawyer, Eric Green, said the District Attorney's Office would be wasting taxpayers' money on a second trial because his client is innocent.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated over two days before finding Chanmany guilty of cultivation of marijuana and growing marijuana for sale. The crimes carry a punishment of about five years in prison, Green said.
After the verdicts were announced, one juror said outside court that eight jurors believed Chanmany was not guilty of second-degree murder. Three jurors believed he was guilty of second-degree murder and one juror was unsure.
If convicted of murder, Chanmany would have faced life in prison.
After the verdicts, Wells could not be reached to comment; he went behind closed doors to talk with jurors before they left the courthouse.
During the trial, Wells said 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.
Wells told the jury that Chanmany used an assault rifle to kill Mercado and then buried the teen in a shallow grave.
But 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.
Prosecutors have never explained why they dropped murder and marijuana cultivation charges 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.
Much of the evidence in the two-week trial was not in dispute.
Mercado and two friends drove to a marijuana farm near Annadale and Willow avenues southeast of Fresno. The property was leased to Chanmany's family, Wells said. When gunfire erupted, Mercado's two friends fled in their 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 found blood along with 16 shell casings from an assault rifle at the marijuana farm.
The case, however, soon went cold until Chanmany was arrested in Utah.
On Oct. 20, 2012, Chanmany helped detectives find Mercado's grave. He told detectives that he didn't shoot Mercado but was there when it happened and also helped the Voravong brothers bury the body, Wells said.
Green said Wednesday that the evidence proved Chanmany wasn't the killer. "Obviously he is growing and selling marijuana," Green said. "But the real killer is free somewhere."
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