Prosecution rests in death of Fresno mother

James Herren shot and killed his daughter-in-law last year with a single bullet to the head.

But was it murder, or a desperate attempt to save his granddaughter from an abusive mother?

Herren, a 59-year-old retired railroad worker without a criminal record, is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court accused of killing Chai Xiong, a 29-year-old juvenile correctional officer.

Shortly after Herren shot Xiong on Aug. 29, he confessed to friends and police that he had killed his daughter-in-law. But he said he had no choice, witnesses testified Thursday.

Herren lived on the 6700 block of North Price Avenue in northwest Fresno with his son, Jason, and Jason's wife and daughter, 31/2-year-old Keeley. James Herren cared deeply for Keeley and, according to neighbor Ron Kent, once said that "he didn't know he could feel that way about someone until she came along."

In his opening statements earlier this week, defense attorney Roberto Dulce said that Herren witnessed Xiong abuse Keeley for 11/2 years. Once Xiong slapped her daughter across the face for spilling milk, Dulce said.

Dulce said that on Aug. 29, while Jason Herren was away, James Herren saw Xiong take her daughter into a bedroom. Herren heard Xiong yelling at Keeley to shut up, and then he heard Keeley screaming in a muffled voice, Dulce said.

Herren's sister, Sandra Herren, testified Thursday that her brother told her that he heard Keeley crying out, "Papa, help me!"

"He said he tried to stay out of it, and then when [Keeley] didn't say anything anymore, he went in there and Chai had a blanket over her face," Sandra Herren said.

Fearing that Xiong would smother her daughter, Herren grabbed Xiong's hair, Dulce said. He then shot Xiong.

Prosecutor Blake Gunderson said in his opening statements that Xiong's body was found in the garage, covered with a blanket.

Herren later called police, but when they arrived, he refused to leave the house. After a 11/2-hour standoff, he surrendered.

During the standoff, Herren got a call from Kent, his neighbor, and confessed that he had just killed Xiong, Kent testified.

"I asked him if it was accidental, and he said no," Kent testified. "I asked him to think of his family and Keeley, because I was afraid he'd harm himself. He said, 'Keeley was the reason I did this.' "

The prosecution rested its case Thursday, and the defense will present its witnesses Monday. Dulce has said that Herren should be convicted of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder.

"James Herren loved Keeley as much as humanly possible," Dulce told jurors. "He was trying to save the life of someone who could not possibly protect herself."