Fresno, California

From the Fresno Bee of April 27, 2007

Man acquitted in neighbor’s killing

Jury unanimously finds James Grove not guilty of manslaughter in his retrial.

Three years ago, a jury was split over whether rancher James Grove, 69, was guilty of killing his 61-year-old neighbor in the rural outskirts of Fresno.

But after a three-day retrial in Fresno County Superior Court, jurors announced a unanimous verdict Thursday.

All 12 found him not guilty of manslaughter — though they wavered on that decision significantly during two days of deliberations.

Grove’s supporters broke out in tears. One started clapping. Another said, “Thank you.”

Grove raised his hands in the air, and his defense attorney, Ernest Kinney, clasped his hands around his client’s shoulders.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Grove said moments after the verdict was read. “I’m just glad this part is over.”

By “this part,” Grove meant the criminal charges.

A wrongful-death lawsuit his former neighbor’s family filed against him is still pending.

Kinney said the suit seeks $3.5 million.

Relatives of George Barber, the man Grove shot and killed in February 2002, could not be reached for comment.

A year and a half ago, Grove turned down a prosecutor’s offer to plead no contest to a lesser crime and be put on probation but not serve jail time, Kinney said.

Instead, Grove insisted on a trial — risking a potential 21-year prison sentence if convicted.

Grove and Barber lived relatively peacefully for years while they shared a fenced property line in the rural eastern limits of Fresno.

But then in the late 1990s, they started squabbling over almost everything — loose dogs, overflowing irrigation and nasty-smelling smoke.

The men “hated each other,” Fresno County prosecutor Jon Skiles said in his closing arguments Wednesday.

The smoke from Barber’s chimney — contaminated by a wood preservative burning in his fireplace — would waft into Grove’s property and bother his wife. One day, as the plumes of smoke rose again, Grove snapped, Skiles said.

The 400-pound Barber had been shot in the stomach. He died the next day in a hospital.

Grove meant to kill his neighbor, Skiles said. But Kinney said his client reacted in self-defense.

Five months before he was killed, Barber showed Grove a new handgun he had bought, Kinney said. He said that during the following months, Barber tried to make it clear to Grove he kept it in his coat pocket. Barber suggested they settle their dispute with a gunfight, Kinney said.

He said Grove shot Barber only after Barber reached in his coat pocket and told him, “I’m going to shoot you.”

In the end, jurors agreed with Kinney.

They deliberated for less than two days — but changed their minds quite frequently, said Kinney, who talked to the jurors after the verdict.

At first, 10 jurors believed Grove should be convicted. Only two felt otherwise.

But, Kinney said, jurors swung the other way after they carefully read a state law that states a person can still act out of self-defense even if the person confronts — instead of flees — someone perceived to be a threat.

“It says right here — you don’t have to go to safety,” Kinney said.

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