A 26-year-old man accused of committing a 2006 homicide in Winton was sentenced to three years felony probation this week, as part of a plea agreement reached with prosecutors.
Javier Daniel Esquivel was a suspect in the shooting death of 27-year-old Michael Jay Wallace during an Oct. 29, 2006, Halloween party at 6262 Meadow Drive. Merced County sheriff's deputies said the shooting was gang-related and stemmed from a fight.
Although Esquivel was arrested after the shooting and charged with murder, on Thursday he pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of felony assault with a firearm.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said a plea agreement was reached in the case because of a lack of evidence. Goold said the group of people at the party was large, and shots were fired from more than one gun.
Goold acknowledged there was conflicting information leading to Esquivel's arrest, although he declined to go into specifics. "It makes it very difficult to prove murder under those facts," Goold said.
Esquivel's attorney H. Ernesto Castillo said his client has always maintained his innocence, but pleaded no contest to a lesser charge to avoid a possible life sentence.
Castillo said the stakes for his client would've been too high, if the case went to trial. Castillo said his client isn't a gang member, but was at the party the night Wallace was shot. He said Esquivel wasn't involved in the fight or the shooting -- and happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Castillo said although a confidential informant said his client committed the killing, another witness said someone else was responsible.
"(Esquivel) didn't do anything, but overall (the plea agreement) is a victory because he gets his life back and he gets to move on," Castillo said.
Esquivel was free on bail before Thursday's hearing.
Goold said the victim's mother was in court during the hearing, saying she forgives Esquivel and hopes he "does something with his life." Castillo said while Esquivel's "heart goes out to the victim and his family," he isn't the person who committed the killing.
According to a sheriff's report, deputies responded to the scene shortly before 1 a.m. in response to a shots-fired call. As deputies approached, several cars were seen speeding away through orchards.
More than 100 people were at the scene when deputies arrived. Wallace, who was fatally shot, lay in the back of a pickup truck, being tended to by friends. The organizer of the party said more than 200 people had been there.
Two additional suspects were arrested in the case, but weren't charged in Wallace's killing.
The arrest counts as a strike on Esquivel's criminal record, Goold said.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.