The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office has dismissed the murder charge in the homicide of a Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr., who was shot and killed in 2014 after he came upon two people on his property stripping a stolen truck.
Jose Canas was put on trial twice for George Salwasser Jr.s’ slaying, resulting in two hung juries.
The second-degree murder charge against Canas, 26, was dismissed without prejudice at a hearing Thursday, meaning it could be filed again. There’s no statute of limitations on filing a murder charge.
Prosecutor William Lacy made the motion to dismiss before Judge Alvin Harrell III in Fresno County Superior Court, where a strike by courthouse employees has noticeably slowed courtroom activity.
After weighing options, Harrell moved the hearing from his regular courtroom, which was empty, to a packed courtroom where a court reporter was still working. Most court reporters are on strike. Chanting by strikers from outside the courthouse, while not audible in the courtroom, could at times be heard in the hallways.
The charge is being dismissed because it’s not likely a third jury trial will result in a different verdict, the DA’s office said in a statement.
“At the conclusion of the second trial involving Mr. Canas, my office felt that the evidence, as it stands today, is insufficient to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt at another trial,” read the statement from Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright. “Mr. Lacy, after discussing the state of the case with the victim’s family, dismissed the case today without prejudice.”
Defense attorney Ralph Torres said he’s not worried his client will be tried again.
“In the interests of justice, this is the best decision they can make, leaving the option open that in the future that they may refile,” he said. “Realistically, in my 30 years experience, it’ll never happen.”
At Canas’ first trial, the jury voted not guilty on first-degree murder, and hung 9-3 on second-degree murder, with only three favoring guilt, Torres said. In the second trial on second-degree murder, which ended last month, the jury voted 10-2 in favor of not guilty.
Torres, a private practice attorney, defended Canas at both trials. Canas faced 40 years to life in prison if he’d been found guilty at the second trial.
Despite the second-degree murder charge being dismissed, Canas won’t walk free, at least not right away. He’s being held without bail on a violation of probation charge, and faces criminal charges for incidents that occurred while in jail awaiting trial.
If found guilty of all charges and sentenced to the longest terms, he faces 10 years in prison. But his attorney said Canas has been behind bars for more than four and half years, so combined with credits for time served he should be released before long.
After the judge approved dismissing the murder charge, Canas could be seen shaking his attorney’s hand in gratitude.
“He said, ‘Thank you,’ “ Torres said later. “He was very happy.”
Torres said it appeared Canas did not know the murder charge would be dismissed. Torres said he had not had a chance to meet with Canas, although Torres did notify his family late Wednesday after learning of the development.
The family “was very appreciative, of course, very happy that he’s not subject to life in prison,” Torres said. Canas has a wife and children.
Canas was put on trial for the shooting of Salwasser, 38, on May 8, 2014, when Salwasser confronted Canas and another man on his farm property as the two were trying to take the rims off a stolen truck.
Salwasser was killed while holding a gun and a cell phone and calling 911.
Canas fled. After being arrested, he confessed on videotape.
Torres said Canas confessed to protect his family because he believed a suspect in the killing had made phone calls to his home threatening him, his wife and child.
“He didn’t want his family to get hurt,” Torres said.
Canas also believed that detectives would find out that he did not fire the gun, Torres said.
The weapon was never found.
An accomplice, Adrian Aceves, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for 11 years and eight months in prison. He is in jail and has yet to be sentenced. The plea deal will remain in effect, the DA’s office said.
Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold