A marijuana grower was sentenced Monday to 11 years in prison in connection with the 2012 killing of a Sanger teen who was fatally shot while trying to steal marijuana from a field southeast of Fresno.
Ernie Chanmany, 25, declined to comment when his punishment was announced in Fresno County Superior Court.
Two years ago, a jury found him guilty of growing marijuana to sell, but not guilty of first-degree murder of 16-year-old Sammy Mercado. The jury also voted 8-4 in finding Chanmany not guilty of second-degree murder, said defense attorney Eric Green, who defended Chanmany.
Because the vote was not unanimous, prosecutors could have retried Chanmany on the second-degree murder charge. Instead, both sides hashed out a plea agreement in which Chanmany pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter.
Outside court Monday, Green said Chanmany was innocent in Mercado’s death, but didn’t want to take a chance of getting convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of 15 years to life in prison. “Who knows what another jury might think of the evidence?” Green said.
Prosecutors contend Sammy Mercado, 16, was killed during the early hours of April 12, 2012, while he and two friends tried to steal plants from a marijuana field.
Prosecutors contend Mercado was killed during the early hours of April 12, 2012, while he and two friends tried to steal plants from a marijuana field that belonged to Chanmany. They said Chanmany used an assault rifle to kill Mercado and then buried the teen in a shallow grave near Butler and Thompson avenues southeast of Fresno.
But Green said several people were involved in the marijuana-growing operation. He said Michael Voravong, who initially was charged with murdering Mercado and growing marijuana, shot the teen. Charges against Voravong were dropped once authorities captured Chanmany in Utah in October 2012 with 110 pounds of marijuana, court records show.
Once arrested, Chanmany made incriminating statements to Fresno County sheriff's detectives and led them to Mercado’s decomposed body, records say.
During Chanmany’s trial in July 2014, prosecutors never explained why they dropped murder and marijuana cultivation charges against Voravong, and accessory and marijuana charges against his brother, Marshall Voravong. Ballistics tests and DNA evidence never linked the Voravongs to the assault rifle used in the shooting.
According to the testimony, Mercado and two friends drove to a marijuana farm near Annadale and Willow avenues southeast of Fresno. The property was leased to Chanmany’s family. When gunfire erupted, Mercado’s two friends fled in their SUV, leaving Mercado behind.
When Mercado didn’t return to his home in Sanger, his family filed a missing person report. Once Sanger police learned it could be a homicide, the investigation was turned over to sheriff’s detectives, who found blood along with 16 shell casings from an assault rifle at the marijuana farm.
After his arrest, Chanmany told detectives that he didn’t shoot Mercado but was there when it happened and helped the Voravong brothers bury the body.
In court Monday, prosecutor Sam Dalesandro told Judge James Kelley that Mercado didn’t deserve to die at such a young age. Although Chanmany never was convicted of murder, Dalesandro said Chanmany and his illegal drug dealing will always be linked to the boy’s death.