In a murder trial that began Friday, both sides agree that Jose Canas witnessed the shooting death of Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr. in May 2014.
What’s in dispute in Fresno Superior Court is whether Canas pulled the trigger.
In opening statements of the trial, prosecutor William Lacy said Canas confessed to sheriff’s detectives that he shot Salwasser, who was killed while holding a gun and a cell phone and calling 911. The confession was videotaped, Lacy said.
In addition, Canas’ accomplice, Adrian Aceves, also has identified Canas as the shooter, the prosecutor said.
But defense attorney Ralph Torres told jurors that Canas lied to detectives about killing Salwasser because he feared one of Aceves’ friends would harm his family if he identified the shooter. Torres identified Aceves as the shooter, calling him “the shot caller” of a group that took a stolen pickup to Salwassar’s property in order to steal rims off the truck.
Torres said Aceves can’t be trusted because he accepted a plea deal to testify against Canas. Court records say Aceves pleaded guilty in July 2015 to voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Salwasser and possessing a stolen truck. In exchange for his plea, he will be sentenced to 11 years and eight months in prison. His sentencing hearing is pending.
In announcing the defense theory of the case, Torres said scientific evidence dealing with gunshot residue and the angle of the two bullets that killed Salwasser will prove Canas isn’t the shooter.
This is the second time Canas, 36, has been tried for murdering Salwasser, who was married with four children.
In November 2016, a jury of seven women and five men found found Canas not guilty of first-degree murder and voted 9-3 to find Canas not guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. Because the jury’s vote was not unanimous, Lacy decided to retry Canas on a second-degree murder charge, but not first-degree murder.
If convicted of second-degree murder, Canas faces 40 years to life in prison.
The trial before Judge Alvin Harrell III is expected to take three to four weeks.
A jury of nine women and three men, plus five alternates , have been selected to hear Canas’ second trial. It’s a different group than the one that heard the first trial.
Addressing the jury on Friday, 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 surrounded by a vineyard near Howard and Shields avenues, south of the 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 the four arranged to meet and ended up on Salwasser’s property.
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. One bullet entered Salwasser’s neck from the left side. Another bullet stuck the left side of his back.
In his first trial, Canas testified that he was facing Salwasser when Aceves sneaked up and shot Salwasser. He also testified that Aceves forced him at gunpoint to take Salwasser’s gun after Salwasser was fatally shot.
During the first trial, Aceves denied shooting Salwasser, testifying that he was walking away when he heard gunfire. But Torres told the jury on Friday that Aceves wore gloves while stealing the rims. Torres said he asked the prosecution to test the gloves and they came back positive for gunshot residue.
Jurors in the first trial heard Salwasser’s 911 call in which he is shot while talking to a dispatch operator. Lacy played the 911 call in his opening statements on Friday.
Salwasser died within four to seven minutes of being shot.
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.
In a separate trial in 2015, Fabian Mansanalez was convicted of possession of a stolen vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Jurors rejected a charge of murder against him.
Maria Mansanalez also accepted a plea agreement to testify against Canas. She faces up to three years and eight months in prison after pleading guilty in July 2015 to being an accessory after Salwasser’s slaying and guilty to possession of a stolen pickup. Her sentencing hearing is pending.