Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Skinhead Gang Leader
Court Says Juror’s ‘Off-the-Cuff’ Prediction That Defendant Would ‘Fry’ Did Not Compel Reversal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a leader of a gang of skinheads, convicted of raping and murdering a woman who had spurned his romantic overtures.
Justices rejected Justin Merriman’s claim that a mistrial should have been declared once the judge learned that a juror had discussed the case, before or during deliberations, with a deputy sheriff. The deputy, who was married to the brother of the juror’s daughter, said the woman told her the jury was going to “fry” the defendant, although the juror said she could not remember using that language, but might have.
The court said that while the juror violated the court’s instructions not to discuss the case, the resulting presumption of prejudice was rebutted by evidence the juror had performed her duty to consider the evidence impartially.
Merriman was indicted in 1999, seven years after Katrina Montgomery disappeared after leaving a party at the home of another gang leader in Oxnard. Merriman, who was about 20 at the time of the murder, had attended the same party.
The victim’s bloodstained pickup truck was found abandoned in the Angeles National Forest. Police and prosecutors later said that Merriman had been suspected from the beginning, but that they did not have enough evidence to prosecute until an anonymous tip led them to a Sylmar gang member who ultimately admitted that he had witnessed the murder and helped dispose of the body.
During his 2 1/2-month trial, prosecutors portrayed Merriman as a serial rapist who had used his influence within white supremacist gang circles to intimidate witnesses. In addition to the murder charge and rape special circumstance, he was convicted of several counts of witness dissuasion and sexual assault based on incidents that occurred after the murder.
Prosecutors also charged Merriman’s mother with communicating a threat from him to a gang member whom he was attempting to dissuade from testifying. She was convicted and sentenced to two years in state prison.
Witnesses testified that Merriman met Montgomery through Mitch Sutton, a founder of the Skin Head Dogs. Montgomery dated Sutton as a teenager, and continued to correspond with and visit the defendant while he served time in various detention facilities.
Merriman’s side of the correspondence took an angry tone, however, suggesting that Montgomery was interested in being his friend, not his girlfriend, and that he was unhappy about it. Montgomery also told her mother that Merriman had forced himself on her after his release from prison.
Prosecutors built the major part of their case on the testimony of Sylmar Family gang members Larry Nicassio and Ryan Bush. Though they had been initially uncooperative, they told the jury at trial that Montgomery, who was intoxicated, had been taken back to the defendant’s house, where he raped her, slit her throat, and hit her with a wrench.
Nicassio, according to the testimony, wanted to call an ambulance, but Merriman threatened him with the bloody knife and said he couldn’t take the risk that Montgomery would survive and “rat” on him.
Jurors convicted him in February 2001 of first-degree murder, conspiracy, witness tampering and the rapes of two other women. The defense maintained in the penalty phase that Merriman suffered from severe psychological problems.
News accounts at the time said that Merriman drew gasps in the penalty phase when he gave a Nazi salute. He took the witness stand and proclaimed his innocence.
Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent O’Neill pronounced the death sentence in accordance with the jury’s verdict. The defense’s primary argument on appeal was that the judge should have granted a mistrial, or granted a later motion for a new trial, based on juror misconduct.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, acknowledged that the defendant was entitled to a presumption of prejudice based on “serious” juror misconduct. But the trial judge was correct, she said, in ruling that the presumption had been rebutted.
The juror, the chief justice emphasized, had not contacted the deputy to discuss the case, but rather to arrange to have lunch during the trial. While the lunch date never came off because the deputy’s superiors disapproved, it was not disputed that the juror made a brief comment about the case during the phone call.
Even assuming that the deputy’s recollection of the comment was correct, Cantil-Sakauye said, there was no proof of actual bias on the part of the juror.
“As the trial court found, it was Deputy Baker’s unsolicited comment to the effect that she hoped the jury would ‘put defendant away’ that prompted Juror No. 1’s ‘off-the-cuff’ response predicting that death would be imposed, and there was no further discussion regarding the pending case,” the jurist wrote. “The nature and surrounding circumstances of the misconduct do not suggest Juror No. 1 was actually biased against defendant.”
The case is People v. Merriman, 14 S.O.S. 3534.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company