Homeless and cold in downtown Fresno, Isaac Sanders saw an idling car, so he got in it to get warm, his lawyer says.
But when Sanders drove off into the night in December 2012, he led police on a high-speed chase before crashing and suffering major head injuries.
Three years later, he is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court, accused of carjacking, assault with a semi-automatic pistol and evading police.
Defense attorney Beth Ann Lee says Sanders, 32, is a car thief, but not a carjacker. She also told the jury in her opening statement this week that it is a case of mistaken identity.
“We have some bad facts,” Lee conceded to the jury. “But there is some doubt.”
Yes, he knew it was stolen, but it was warm, so he took off in it.
Fresno defense lawyer Beth Ann Lee
It all began at the downtown Fresno Community Market at Blackstone and Illinois avenues, near Community Regional Medical Center.
Around 7 p.m. Dec. 28, 2012, two women in a Honda parked outside the store. One went in, and the other waited by the car, prosecutor Dennis Verzosa told the jury.
Verzosa said Sanders showed up with a .25-caliber handgun and demanded the Honda. “Give me your keys,” Sanders said, according to Verzosa.
But the gun looked small to the victim, so she mocked the carjacker: “Are you kidding me?”
That’s when Sanders fired a round into the air, Verzosa told the jury. Scared for her life, the woman handed over the car keys and Sanders took off, the prosecutor says. A motorist saw the confrontation and called 911. The motorist then followed until police picked up the pursuit.
Verzosa described the prosecution’s version of how the chase unfolded:
The carjacker sped east to the area of Fresno Street and Belmont Avenue. On Madison Avenue, an officer reported that the Honda hit a bump and the driver went airborne out of his seat.
The chase ended when Sanders hit two trees and crashed near First Street and Illinois Avenue.
Verzosa says Sanders was knocked unconscious. He was taken to a hospital. The victim later identified Sanders as the carjacker.
The next day, residents on Madison Avenue – where the Honda hit the bump – found a .25-caliber handgun. Police seized the gun as evidence and that day officers also found a shell casing at the crime scene. Ballistic testing showed that the spent shell casing came from the gun, Verzosa told the jury.
Lee, however, asked the jury not to draw conclusions until after all of the evidence is presented.
She said neither Sanders’ fingerprints nor his DNA were discovered on the gun.
Police tested Sanders’ hands for gunshot residue and only found a minimal amount, not enough to have come from firing a gun, Lee says, contending that her client got the residue on his hands because the person who carjacked the Honda likely touched the steering wheel or gear shift before abandoning the vehicle.
Lee also said the victim told police that she saw as many as seven black men lingering in the parking lot and that one of them confronted her with a gun. Jail records list Sanders as American Indian or Alaskan native.
Though it was dark, the parking lot was lit by a big lamp, Lee says.
And what of Sanders being behind the wheel? Lee contends the motorist who called 911 temporarily lost sight of the Honda after the confrontation. In that lapse of eyewitness contact, Lee says, Sanders spotted the idling, empty car.
“Yes, he knew it was stolen, but it was warm, so he took off in it,” Lee says.