MERCED -- Jury deliberations have begun in the trial of a 24-year-old man accused of bludgeoning a handyman to death in 2010.
Jurors on Thursday heard closing arguments from both sides in the case. Jerry Dale Choate is accused of bludgeoning Richard Mora, 51, of Fremont to death as he slept inside a home at 326 W. 20th St.
Choate's attorney maintains the case is built upon lies from thieves and a biased police investigation.
Merced police arrested Choate and another man, 21-year-old Christopher Anderson, in the weeks after Mora's decomposing body was found inside the home on Aug. 3, 2010. Choate is charged with murder and burglary. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Detectives believe Choate, who's nicknamed "J.J.," broke into the home with help from Anderson, then smashed Mora's skull with an ax handle. A third person, Sara Stephens, acted as a lookout during the robbery, police said.
Earlier during the trial, Anderson testified that he witnessed Choate standing over Mora, hitting him with the weapon. Stephens also testified against Choate during the trial, saying he confessed to her about killing Mora.
On Thursday, prosecutor Travis Colby painted the defendant as a remorseless murderer who attacked Mora without provocation, swinging the ax handle with great force as he bludgeoned the victim.
Colby argued that the defendant sent text messages to his mother and a friend, making statements implicating himself in the homicide. Using his wife's phone, Choate wrote: "I really did do it," and "I am not the son you needed to have," the prosecutor said.
In the other text message, Choate told a friend who needed a lawn mower that there was one at the home where Mora had been killed. Colby said only Mora's killer would have known that. "This is a deliberate, coldblooded murderer," Colby said, pointing at Choate.
Interim Public Defender Eric Dumars argued the case is plagued by unscrupulous witnesses interested only in saving their own skins. He called Anderson, the prosecution's key witness, a "sociopath" without empathy who testified only to avoid a life sentence. "His testimony is bought," Dumars said.
He also cast doubt on the text messages, saying the prosecutors have no credible evidence the phone belonged to his client. "It is not justice to convict a man of murder, who had nothing to do with Mr. Mora's death," Dumars said.
Dumars attacked the investigation by Merced police, focusing his aim on Detective Joe Deliman, the lead investigator in the case.
Dumars said Stephens, who admitted being the lookout that night, is a longtime friend of Deliman's daughter. The defense attorney said Stephens was even wearing pants she'd borrowed from Deliman's daughter the night Mora was killed.
Dumars argued that Deliman's family relationship had biased the investigation, adding that it should have been turned over to another detective.
But Colby strongly disagreed, saying other than being friends with a witness, Deliman's daughter has no relation whatsoever to the case. "There is no biased investigation. That is a fiction of (Dumars') imagination," Colby said.
Anderson agreed to testify against Choate in exchange for a reduced charge of first-degree robbery. He will be sentenced to 12 years in prison as part of that deal. Stephens was granted immunity by the prosecution for her testimony.
If convicted, Choate faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.