A series of motions and arguments brought forth by Charles “Chase” Merritt’s defense team just minutes before Merritt’s scheduled sentencing date Friday, Jan. 17 ultimately caused San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith to delay the final sentencing until Tuesday, Jan. 21.
Judge Smith was scheduled to decide whether Merritt will be put to death or serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killing of the McStay family of Fallbrook in 2010.
In June, Merritt was found guilty of bludgeoning to death Joseph and Summer McStay and the couple’s young sons – 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. – in 2010 and burying their bodies in a San Bernardino desert.
Also in June, the jury recommended the death penalty for the killing of Summer and the two young sons and recommended life in prison without parole for the killing of Joseph. Special circumstances were added on all counts.
After several delays leading up to the scheduled Friday, Jan. 17 sentencing of Merritt, the ordeal that has last longer than a year and featured the post-conviction dismissal of Merritt’s lead attorney, James McGee, took another wild turn.
When the court session began, the court learned Merritt’s current lead attorney Raj Maline filed a last-minute plea for a new trial claiming ineffective assistance in counsel by McGee based on an argument that cell phone records were shoddy and that an expert report concluded that Merritt’s location was incorrectly reported based on cell tower pings near the shallow gravesites where the McStay family was discovered in 2013.
“The case is much different if there is no evidence that Chase is on the 85th degree Azimuth (near the gravesites),” Maline said.
Maline also argued that the prosecution was lied to during closing arguments, alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
“There’s absolutely no evidence other than the bluster that we heard during the trial, there’s absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Merritt to the killing, absolutely none,” Maline said. “We believe Mr. Merritt deserves a new trial.”
Judge Smith then cut off the attorney during his argument, saying he was not interested in hearing more lengthy testimony by either side in order to determine if a new case was warranted because he said he didn’t believe it was warranted based on what was presented in the motions.
“I want to advocate for my client the best that I can by pointing out that there was insufficient evidence that might have made a difference to the jury,” Maline said.
Midway through Maline’s back and forth with Judge Smith, Merritt actually interrupted both of them, addressing the judge before Maline said Merritt wanted to speak with him. Judge Smith then announced there would be a 40-minute lunch break.
Upon coming back from the break, Maline told Judge Smith that Merritt told him he wanted to fire Maline from the case and that during their conversation, he brought up issues that would cause a conflict between the two.
There was an audible gasp in the courtroom and Judge Smith then ordered another closed courtroom break and brought both Maline and Merritt back into his chambers for almost an hour.
When they returned, Judge Smith announced he was denying the request to relieve Maline of his duties as Merritt’s attorney.
Maline then continued his argument of prosecutorial misconduct and how he believed conduct during the trial created a bias in the jury.
Finally, Maline argued that the timeline doesn’t fit on Feb. 4, 2010, the day prosecutors said the McStay family went missing.
San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes then had a chance to argue the motions Maline put into play and disputed the facts presented. Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty attempted to correct disputed facts on the record.
Merritt’s former attorney, McGee, was then brought onto the stand to talk more about issues the defense has with the cell phone tower testimony and facts.
After more than 6 hours in court, Judge Smith rejected all motions made by Maline. He then addressed the time issue in regard to hearing victim impact statements and ultimately, formal sentencing. He said he didn’t think he could keep court staff on the premises much long and suggested court be delayed until they could return on Tuesday.
With McStay family friends and family members in the audience, prosecutors asked the judge to let one of the family members, Joseph’s father, Patrick, make his impact statement before having to fly back to his home outside Houston.
“They welcomed you into their home and family,” Patrick read from the podium, directing his anger at Merritt. “And my son, Joey, did nothing but help you and your family.”
Patrick referenced a time when he said Merritt was in jail and couldn’t provide for his family, but Joseph stepped in to help the family.
“Joey gave money to the mother of your children, Kathy Sharpless, money to buy food, made sure your bills were paid so your family didn’t have to suffer because of the actions that put you in jail. Joey accepted the responsibility, something you never seemed to do.
“And how did you repay him?” Patrick asked. “By brutally killing him, his wife, Summer, and his defenseless, infant sons, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joey Jr.”
Merritt looked back to face Patrick periodically, turning away seemingly disturbed by what the father was saying.
“You and no one else can be blamed as you have proven this to the world,” Patrick said. “I hope you will burn in hell, but I will pray for your family and your children as they are, to me, all just more innocent victims, of which there are many, of what you did. You have absolutely no regard or caring for when you murdered my family and caused such pain and suffering that will last forever.”
Court will resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.