Merced County jury finds Choate guilty of murdering Fremont handyman

09/21/2012 12:53 PM

09/22/2012 1:14 AM

A jury convicted 33-year-old Jerry Dale Choate of first-degree murder Friday morning in the slaying of a Fremont handyman during a robbery at the Merced house the victim was renovating.

It took Merced County jurors less than a day to convict Choate of slaying Richard Mora, 51. The victim was bludgeoned to death with an ax handle in the summer of 2010 at the house on 326 W. 20th St.

Choate is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 19 by Judge John Kirihara. He is facing life without parole.

Deputy District Attorney Travis Colby said the abundance of evidence in the case against Choate, which included testimony from two co-conspirators, resonated with jurors.

Mora happened to be at the home because he'd been hired to do renovation work, Colby said, and was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"We hope (the jury's decision) will bring some peace to Mr. Mora, the fact that his killer has been brought to justice," Colby said.

Interim Public Defender Eric Dumars said his client has maintained his innocence from the beginning. "My client is disappointed. His family is disappointed and he'll (file an) appeal," Dumars said.

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 Aug. 3, 2010.

Anderson agreed to testify against Choate in exchange for a reduced charge of first-degree robbery. Anderson said he broke into the home with Choate and witnessed the murder but didn't participate. He'll be sentenced to 12 years in prison as part of deal with the prosecution.

Sara Stephens, who acted as a lookout during the robbery and homicide, was granted immunity by the prosecution for her testimony in Choate's trial.

At the time of his arrest, Choate had been on parole for possession of stolen property and bringing drugs into a correctional facility, Colby said.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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