MERCED -- A Delhi man who authorities say fatally shot his girlfriend in the face last week has been charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Fabio Mendonca pleaded not guilty during his brief arraignment hearing Monday in Merced County Superior Court. He's accused of killing his fiancée, Mirisa Dinwiddie, 20, of Hilmar.
Mendonca's family members have claimed the July 4 shooting was an accident.
Prosecutors with the Merced County District Attorney's Office decided to file the voluntary manslaughter charge against Mendonca because of the "criminal negligence" involved in the shooting, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold.
Goold added that a shotgun was used in the crime, although he said no "malice aforethought" or "implied malice" was present to support a murder charge.
The voluntary manslaughter charge includes the enhancement of use of a firearm. If convicted, Mendonca faces a maximum of 21 years in prison.
Nearly a dozen of the defendant's friends and family members sat in the courtroom during Monday's hearing, some wiping away tears, while others comforted one another.
Mendonca has hired local attorney John Garcia to represent him in the case.
Although Garcia said he couldn't elaborate on the circumstances of the shooting, he said all of the reports he has reviewed thus far appear to indicate it was accidental.
"I can't comment as to whether any crime has been committed at this point," he said. "There's a number of people I need to interview. And I know family members on both sides are eager to speak with me."
Garcia expressed some relief his client wasn't charged with murder, which would have meant a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
"The district attorney must have taken a good look at it, and realized that maybe all of those elements weren't there," Garcia said.
Garcia said he will ask the court Wednesday for a daylong jail pass for his client, which would allow Mendonca to attend Dinwiddie's funeral.
Mendonca is a citizen of Portugal who is legally residing in the United States with a green card, Garcia said. He added that Mendonca has no record.
Mendonca remains in the Merced County Jail in lieu of $250,000 bail.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.