October 19, 2012

Choate sentenced to life without parole for West 20th Street murder

Mike Silva's voice cracked through tears in court Friday, as he offered a Bible to 24-year-old Jerry Dale Choate, the man who fatally smashed his brother's skull with an ax-handle.

Mike Silva's voice cracked through tears in court Friday, as he offered a Bible to 24-year-old Jerry Dale Choate, the man who fatally smashed his brother's skull with an ax-handle.

Meanwhile, sporting a new Mohawk-style haircut and a red jailhouse jumpsuit, Choate remained stoic and looked forward, avoiding eye contact with Silva.

Silva pleaded with Choate to repent for his sins. "If you don't, you'll learn what is waiting for you at the end," Silva said. "Hell is hot, and forever is a long time."

The exchange capped off the final legal chapter in the case of Choate, found guilty by a jury last month of first-degree murder in the killing handyman Richard Mora, 51, of Fremont in 2010.

On Friday, Judge John Kirihara gave Choate a sentence of mandatory life without parole in state prison. As part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, 21-year-old Christopher Anderson was sentenced Friday by Kirihara to 12 years in prison for his role as an accomplice.

Choate and Anderson were arrested by Merced police in the weeks after Mora's body was found on Aug. 3, 2010, inside a home he'd been renovating at 326 W. 20th St.

Authorities say Choate broke into the home with help from Anderson, killed Mora and took his tools, and a third person, Sara Stephens, acted as a lookout during the robbery and homicide.

Choate remained emotionless and said little during the somber sentencing hearing Friday, only flashing a wink toward his family members as bailiffs walked him out of the courtroom, followed by a terse "love you guys."

"Love you too," about a half-dozen of his family members replied.

Anderson apologized in open court to the victim's mother, Rachel Silva. "I really did not know what was going to happen. I'm sorry," Anderson said.

Rachel Silva stood and accepted Anderson's apology. "It's unfortunate you were there," she said, crying. "I feel badly you'll have to spend time in prison, such a young man. All I can say is I forgive you."

Anderson agreed to testify against Choate during the trial in exchange for a reduced charge of first-degree robbery. Stephens was given immunity for her testimony.

"The family definitely receives a degree of closure today for the murder of their son, Mr. Mora," prosecutor Travis Colby said Friday. "It was a death that never should have happened."

Colby commended the victim's brother for offering a Bible to Choate in court. "It shows a great sign of forgiveness, that many people don't have," Colby said.

Interim Public Defender Eric Dumars, Choate's attorney, said the crime was a "great loss and a great tragedy," for Mora's family. However, Dumars added that his client still maintains he's innocent.

"Mr. Choate has been consistent that he was not a participant in that loss and he feels a deep sense of sadness for (Mora's family's) loss, I am sure," Dumars said. "He had nothing to do with this murder, and he'll appeal the verdict."

Anderson testified during the trial 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.

Anderson told jurors he, Choate and Stephens had smoked methamphetamine prior to the murder. He said Choate came up with an idea of breaking into the 20th Street house to steal some items they could use to buy more methamphetamine.

The defense had argued the case was plagued by unscrupulous witnesses interested only in saving their own skins.

At the time of his arrest for the murder, 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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