The man accused of fatally shooting Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr. in May 2014 was found not guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder.
The Fresno County Superior Court jury also sent a strong message that prosecutors might have accused the wrong person of shooting Salwasser.
After deliberating about eight hours over two days, the jury of seven women and five men voted 9-3 to find Jose Canas, 34, not guilty of the lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter. To reach a verdict, the jury’s vote has to be unanimous.
Because jurors were deadlocked, Judge Jonathan Skiles called a mistrial, which allows prosecutors to retry Canas in front of a new jury on charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, but not first-degree murder.
Afterward, Canas’ lawyer, Ralph Torres, said it would be in the prosecution’s best interest to settle the case with a plea agreement that doesn’t include murder or manslaughter, but includes Canas spending some time behind bars.
“Nine jurors said he was not the shooter and that the prosecution couldn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Torres, who talked to 10 of the 12 jurors after the mistrial was declared. “I think if there is a second trial he could be found not guilty of everything.”
Prosecutor William Lacy also talked to the 10 jurors, but office policy prohibits him from commenting.
Canas faces at least 40 years to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
In his trial, Torres faced an uphill battle because Canas confessed to sheriff’s detectives that he had shot Salwasser in the neck and upper back.
But in his trial, Canas testified that his accomplice – Adrian Aceves – shot Salwasser while the farmer held a gun and a cellphone to his ear after making a 911 call to report that two men were on his property taking rims off a pickup truck.
Canas told the jury that he falsely confessed to shooting Salwasser because he feared his accomplices would harm him and his family.
Lacy said Salwasser, 38, was killed around 6:15 p.m. on May 8, 2014, after he confronted Aceves and Canas who were stripping a stolen pickup on a concrete slab in an open field near Howard and Shields avenues, south of the tiny town of Biola.
Fabian Mansanalez had stolen the truck earlier that day in Fresno. He then drove the stolen truck to his sister’s home to enlist her husband, Aceves, to help him sell the truck’s tires and rims. Lacy said Aceves called his friend Canas, and they arranged to meet in an isolated area at Howard and Shields avenues.
While the truck was being stripped, Mansanalez and his sister, Maria Mansanalez, drove to a store a mile away to buy soda and snacks. Meanwhile, Salwasser pulled up to the crime scene in his pickup. He had a .380 Ruger in his left hand and a cellphone in his right. He told Aceves and Canas he was calling the police.
When Aceves started to walk away, Salwasser told him to stop. Once Salwasser diverted his attention toward Aceves, Canas pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his pants pocket and shot Salwasser, Lacy told the jury.
But in his trial, Canas testified that Aceves shot Salwasser. He also testified that Aceves forced him at gunpoint to take Salwasser’s gun after Salwasser was fatally shot.
During the trial, Aceves denied shooting Salwasser, testifying that he was walking away when he heard gunfire. Jurors heard Salwasser’s 911 call in which he is shot while talking to a dispatch operator. He died within four to seven minutes of being shot, Lacy said.
Torres, however, argued that the physical evidence showed Aceves was the shooter.
Torres said Aceves and Canas testified that Canas was taking off the rear tire on the passenger side of the truck when Salwasser showed up. Salwasser parked behind the stolen truck and got out of his truck and drew his gun on Canas. To Salwasser’s left was Aceves walking away from the stolen truck.
Because Salwasser was shot in the left side of his neck and the back of his left shoulder, Torres argued that Aceves was the shooter, because Canas was standing directly in front of Salwasser, several feet away, Torres said.
“Jose is not the shooter because the physical evidence doesn’t support it,” Torres said.
Shortly after the shooting, deputies arrested Aceves and Maria Mansanalez after she crashed her SUV in a nearby field. Fabian Mansanalez and Canas were arrested the next day.
The murder weapon never was found. But Salwasser’s .380 Ruger was found months later in Merced County. An associate of Canas had it, court records say.
After turning himself in, Fabian Mansanalez helped sheriff’s detectives find a .25-caliber Beretta that belonged to Aceves and was in the SUV.
In October, Fabian Mansanalez was sentenced to seven years in prison after a jury found him guilty of possession of a stolen vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Jurors rejected a charge of murder.
Court records say Maria Mansanalez and Aceves accepted plea agreements to testify against Canas and Fabian Mansanalez. Aceves pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and possession of a stolen pickup. He faces 11 years and eight months in prison. Maria Mansanalez pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the killing of Salwasser and possession of a stolen pickup. She faces up to three years and eight months in prison. Their sentencing hearings are pending.
Before the trial, Canas was never offered a plea deal. He will return to court on Jan. 6 to learn his new court date.
Torres, however, said he would like to resolve the case, if the prosecution is inclined to make an offer. “He should do some time behind bars since he was taking off the rims of a stolen truck,” Torres said.