Kamhen Saleh of Porterville, who has never been in trouble with the law, could spend the rest of his life in prison if a jury decides he murdered two men.
Saleh, 24, says he shot them in self-defense two years ago after he caught one of them stealing his backpack containing $44,000 cash and they tried to run him over in a parking lot using a Chevrolet Yukon.
Saleh opened fire and killed both the driver and passenger.
The thief pulled a box cutter knife on him, and someone in the Yukon yelled to run him over, Saleh testified at his preliminary hearing.
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A jury was selected Friday and opening statements will be made Monday at the South County Justice Center courthouse in Porterville, which opened about two years ago.
Because of public interest in the case, the courthouse’s largest courtroom will be used for the first time.
At first glance, it would appear that Saleh might be guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but not murder.
Tulare County Superior Court Judge Glade Roper, who oversaw the preliminary hearing, said that the evidence points to voluntary manslaughter.
“I believe that no reasonable juror could conclude that the defendant acted with actual malice and actual intent to kill the decedents,” Roper said at the hearing.
“I believe there is evidence that he acted recklessly with disregard for the lives of others, but that he acted in an honest and sincere belief he was acting in self-defense, but there is considerable evidence that belief was unreasonable,” Roper said.
But Roper also said it’s possible that a case could be made for second-degree murder.
After the preliminary hearing, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, which originally filed first-degree murder charges, filed two counts of second-degree murder with special allegations of using of a firearm, which would net Saleh 80 years to life in prison if he’s found guilty on both counts.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Underwood said the second-degree murder charges were challenged in court by the defense, but trial Judge Stephen Drew allowed the charges to remain.
Other charges against Saleh include one felony count of shooting at an occupied vehicle with the special allegation of personal and intentional discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury, one felony count of discharging of a firearm with gross negligence, and one misdemeanor count of carrying a loaded firearm in a city.
But it could help Saleh’s case that he has a sympathetic personal story.
“He didn’t have any previous record” as an juvenile or adult, said his defense attorney John K. Jackson of Visalia.
He is the son of a family that owns two restaurants and operated a gas station and food mart in Pixley, Jackson said.
He came to Porterville as a child from New York City, went to high school in Porterville and played basketball in both high school and Porterville City College, where he had been taking classes while helping the family businesses.
On Aug. 2, 2013, Saleh obtained $44,000 in cash from a bank because the gas station cashed a lot of farmworker paychecks. He put the money into a backpack, left it in a 1997 Lexus SUV and went inside Office Max in Porterville to buy several counterfeit detection pens.
While waiting in line at the cash register, he looked out the entrance and saw someone opening the door of the Lexus, according to police reports.
He ran to his SUV and and confronted a man, later identified as Adam Verdusco, 27, inside the vehicle holding the backpack.
Saleh testified that he heard a voice from the Yukon next to the Lexus say “hurry or drop that fool.”
Saleh also grabbed the backpack, but Verdusco, who Saleh said had gang tattoos on his knuckles, kept holding the pack and reached for a bulge on his right side and brought out a yellow box cutter knife, Saleh said.
Saleh let go of the backpack and Verdusco got out of the car and took the backpack with him.
Saleh grabbed his handgun from the front seat and got out of the Lexus.
He testified that he heard a voice say, “Hurry, go go go, run his ass over.”
Saleh shot more than once into the back of the Yukon, but as the SUV moved, Saleh found himself in front of it, according to court documents.
He shot again into the SUV.
“Everywhere I would move it seemed like the car was almost going to run me over,” Saleh testified.
The Yukon drove out of the parking lot and Saleh followed in his Lexus and the two vehicles soon collided.
Verdusco, who had been shot twice, died. Passenger Omar Calderon, 36, shot once, also died.
Both men had felony records. Verdusco had been charged with burglary, assault, car theft and other crimes, and Calderon served time in state prison for car theft and had been charged with crimes several times, according to court documents.
Jackson said the criminal records would be shown to the jury as evidence that Saleh’s life was in danger.