A Fresno car thief who put his faith in the criminal justice system was found not guilty of murder Wednesday in the May 2014 shooting death of Biola raisin farmer George Salwasser Jr.
Instead, the jury of eight men and four women found Fabian Mansanalez guilty of possession of a stolen vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Mansanalez, 25, appeared relieved when the verdict was announced in Fresno County Superior Court.
His attorney, Mark Siegel, said he and Mansanalez nearly cried tears of happiness.
If he had been found guilty of murder, he would have faced a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. Now he faces five to six years behind bars, Siegel said.
He will be sentenced on Oct. 1.
Defense lawyer Mark Siegel said of the murder charge
In defending Mansanalez, Siegel told the jury his client put his faith in the criminal justice system by turning himself in after sheriff’s detective Mark Chapman told him “it would be the right thing to do.”
Mansanalez also helped Chapman find a gun that Mansanalez had taken with him after Salwasser was killed on his property in May last year. Ballistic testing later proved the gun was not the murder weapon.
The nearly three-week trial in Judge Hilary Chittick’s courtroom focused on an interesting legal issue called the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine.
To get a murder conviction, prosecutor William Lacy had to prove that Mansanalez was involved in a crime in which murder was a “natural and probable consequence” or likely to happen.
During the trial, Lacy argued that Mansanalez should have known that stealing a pickup and stripping it on Salwasser’s property would lead to the raisin farmer’s death.
“Legalistic nonsense,” Siegel told the jury.
Siegel conceded that his client was a car thief, but said Mansanalez had no clue Salwasser was going to be shot.
In fact, Mansanalez and his sister were at a store a mile away when the killing happened, he said.
But Lacy told the jury that Mansanalez and his sister had left the store and returned to where the truck was being stripped. Although they didn’t drive onto Salwasser’s property, they hung out just down the road from where the killing happened and never called 911 after learning Salwasser was shot, Lacy said.
“He knew something was wrong because he saw Salwasser’s truck,” Lacy said in closing arguments.
In arguing his case, Lacy told the jury that Mansanalez didn’t have to pull the trigger or be at the crime scene to be convicted of murder.
Jurors heard a 911 tape in which Salwasser was shot while taking to a dispatch operator.
Salwasser, 38, was killed around 6:15 p.m. on May 8, 2014, after he confronted Adrian Aceves and Jose Canas stripping a stolen pickup in an open field near Howard and Shields avenues, south of the tiny town of Biola.
Both sides agreed that Mansanalez had stolen a truck earlier that day in Fresno.
Mansanalez 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. Aceves called his friend Canas, and they arranged to meet in an isolated area at Howard and Shields avenues.
Maria Mansanalez and Aceves drove to the area in an SUV, and Fabian Mansanalez drove there in the stolen truck. But before getting to Salwasser’s property, Aceves traded places with Fabian Mansanalez, the lawyers said. Aceves then drove the stolen pickup to Salwasser’s property, and Mansanalez and his sister followed him. There, they met with Canas.
Siegel told the jury that Fabian Mansanalez didn’t know Canas and didn’t participate in stripping the stolen truck. But Lacy said that Mansanalez gave Aceves and Canas a jack.
While the truck was being stripped, Maria and Fabian Mansanalez drove to a store a mile away to buy soda and snacks. A store surveillance camera verified the pair were at the store and left it around 6 p.m. That gave the pair plenty of time to return to the crime scene, Lacy told the jury.
According to Lacy and Siegel, Salwasser pulled up to the crime scene in his pickup. He had a .380 Ruger in one hand and a cellphone in the other. He told Aceves and Canas he was calling authorities. When Aceves started to walk away, Salwasser told him to stop. Once Salwasser took his attention off Canas, Canas pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his pants pocket and shot Salwasser two times – in the neck and upper back, the lawyers said.
Jurors heard a 911 tape in which Salwasser is shot while talking to a dispatch operator. He died within four to seven minutes of being shot, Lacy told the jury.
Siegel said Fabian Mansanalez first learned something went wrong when he answered his sister’s cellphone. On the other end was Aceves. Maria and Fabian Mansanalez drove to the crime scene and found Aceves on the roadway. He jumped into the SUV and told them that Canas “went crazy and killed the guy,” Siegel told the jury.
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.
Lacy said the murder weapon was never found. But Salwasser’s .380 Ruger was found months later in Merced County. An associate of Canas had it.
After turning himself in, Fabian Mansanalez helped sheriff’s detectives find a .25-caliber Beretta that belonged to Aceves and was in the SUV.
Prior to the trial, Maria Mansanalez, 23, and Aceves, 24, accepted plea agreements to testify against Fabian Mansanalez and Canas. 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.
Canas’ trial is pending.
Wednesday’s verdict was a blow to Salwasser’s family and friends, who left the courtroom with Lacy without commenting.
Outside court, Siegel praised the jury for “doing the right thing” and criticized the District Attorney’s Office.
“It was unjust to try him for murder,” Siegel insisted. “I’m glad the jury could see what a number of legal professionals could not see.”