A man convicted in 2014 of growing marijuana to sell, but not of murdering a Sanger teen who tried to steal some of it, accepted a plea bargain Monday for voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting.
Ernie Chanmany, 25, stood trial in Fresno County Superior Court in the April 2012 slaying of 16-year-old Sammy Mercado as he was trying to steal marijuana plants from Chanmany’s orchard.
Chanmany was found not guilty of first-degree murder, and jurors then split 8-4 on a second-degree murder charge in 2014.
On Monday, Chanmany pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to 11 years in state prison when he returns to court on May 23 for sentencing in front of Judge James A. Kelley.
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Chanmany’s lawyer, Eric Green, said his client is innocent in Mercado’s death, but the District Attorney’s Office was planning to retry him on second-degree murder charges.
Green said his client faced a minimum of 15 years to life in state prison had he been found guilty of second-degree murder in a second trial.
Chanmany has served about four years in Fresno County Jail. His state prison commitment will be about another six years because he has to serve 85 percent of his term.
In 2014, a 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.
If we retried it, it would still be a second-degree murder trial, and you never know what’s going to happen if you roll the dice.
Eric Green, lawyer for Ernie Chanmany
Prosecutors claimed that 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. They said that Chanmany used an assault rifle to kill Mercado and then buried the teen in a shallow grave near Butler and Thompson avenues southeast of Fresno.
Green said Michael Voravong, 33, initially was 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.
During the trial, prosecutors never explained why they dropped murder and marijuana cultivation charges against Voravong, and accessory and marijuana charges against his brother, Marshall Voravong, 31.
Ballistics tests and DNA evidence never linked the Voravongs to the assault rifle used in the shooting.
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. When gunfire erupted, Mercado’s two friends fled in their SUV, leaving Mercado behind.
When Mercado didn’t return to his home in Sanger, his family filed a missing person 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.
After his arrest, Chanmany helped detectives find Mercado’s grave. He told detectives that he didn’t shoot Mercado but was there when it happened and helped the Voravong brothers bury the body.
Green said that evidence shows that Chanmany wasn’t the killer. He said the Voravong brothers were responsible for Mercado’s death.
“If we retried it, it would still be a second-degree murder trial, and you never know what’s going to happen if you roll the dice,” Green said.