A man accused in the shooting death of a Desert Hot Springs teen more than two decades ago was ordered to stand trial on a voluntary manslaughter charge rather a recently refiled murder charge.
Joseph Ray Messer, 41, is accused of shooting 17-year-old Jamie Brown on July 27, 1996, after confronting a group of teens outside the boy's home. Messer was initially charged with murder in 2014, but prosecutors dropped the case after concluding the evidence wasn't strong enough at the time to convict him.
The case was subsequently reopened, and Messer was re-arrested last November at a courthouse in Northern California's El Dorado County, where he was attending a sentencing hearing for his brother in a robbery case.
Following a half-day preliminary hearing at the Larson Justice Center, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Otis Sterling ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence to try Messer for first-degree murder charge and instead ordered him to stand trial on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Messer, who was 20 at the time of the shooting, allegedly approached the victim's younger brother and several other teens while they were riding skateboards just after 1 a.m. outside the Brown home at 13405 Ramona Drive.
After being asked for a cigarette, Messer allegedly stared down the group and said "I'll smoke you, fat boy,'' according to an arrest warrant declaration. He then allegedly added "I'll smoke all of you guys,'' while keeping his right hand at his waistband and concealing it behind a baseball cap.
Jamie Brown was inside the home when the confrontation started, but went outside went another teen said there was a "crazy guy out front,'' according to the declaration. He and some of the other teens followed Messer into an open desert area north of the home, where the defendant allegedly fired a shot into the air, then three to four gunshots directly at the group, striking Brown. He died at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs from a single gunshot to the abdomen.
A .38 caliber revolver was recovered later that day by a resident, who told police that Messer, appearing "extremely agitated,'' asked him for a ride out of town, then tossed the gun and ran after a police car drove past, according to the declaration. The gun, which matched the weapon used to kill the teen, was found to be registered to one of Messer's relatives, the declaration states.
Messer later told an investigator that the shooting was in self-defense, according to the document. He denied confronting the teens and claimed that one of them said "Let's kick this dude's ass'' as he walked past the house. The group then chased him with "bats, bottles and everything,'' he said, forcing him to fire on them when they wouldn't back off.
Investigators say witness accounts and physical evidence from the scene do not support Messer's account.
Messer was identified early on as a person of interest in the case, but a "lack of positive suspect identification'' prevented prosecutors from charging him in 1996, according to the declaration.
His next court appearance is a post-preliminary hearing arraignment on Jan. 26.
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