Merritt Jury Mulling Execution Question After Verdict In McStay Family Murders

The jury in the Charles Merritt murder trial on Monday June 10 found the defendant guilty on four counts of first degree murder in the February 2010 killings of Joseph McStay, his wife, Summer, and their two children, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joseph Jr. The jury made an additional finding of a special circumstance, specifically the commission of multiple homicides, which prepares the way for the potential application of the death penalty against Merritt.
The prosecution in pre-trial hearings and throughout the trial strongly implied that the family had been killed in their Fallbrook home on the evening of February 4, 2010, but during its closing arguments backed away from that theory after the defense had repeatedly brought that into question by drawing attention to the conspicuous lack of evidence of mayhem within the premises, which was the focus of an extensive search 15 days after the family’s disappearance when San Diego County Sheriff’s investigators had obtained a warrant to search the McStay home in conjunction with its inquiry into the highly mysterious multiple missing persons case.
After the family seemingly dropped off the face of the earth with only the most misleading of traces, as when the family vehicle had been found some half mile away from the Mexican border in Ysidro four days after the disappearance, the mystery intensified and continued for three and a half more years until a motorcyclist in the desert area between Victorville and Oro Grande came across a piece of what was later determined to be Joseph McStay, Jr.’s skull. That find led investigators to two shallow graves nearby in a wash off a rarely-used dirt road used for utility facility maintenance. In one of those graves, from which predatory animals had unearthed Joseph McStay Jr.’s body, was the corpse of his father, Joseph McStay. In the other grave were the skeletal remains of his brother, Gianni, and his mother.
Just a few days short of a year later, in November 2014, investigators with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, after having carried out an investigation in which they continuously connected Merritt to events and circumstances relating to Joseph McStay and the events seemingly relating to the family’s demise, they arrested Merritt and charged him with the murders.
The case the prosecution put together against Merritt was an entirely circumstantial one, which featured no direct evidence linking him to the murders. What physical evidence relating to him that did exist, such as trace amounts of his DNA turning up in the family’s Isuzu Trooper left abandoned at the border in San Ysidro, was subject to differing – meaning both sinister and benign – interpretations. Evidence in the form of cell phone records that placed him somewhere in the High Desert in the Victorville/Oro Grande/Hesperia/Apple Valley area on February 6, 2010 was implicative only if several of the prosecution’s speculative assertions, in particular that the family had been buried in the shallow desert graves on that particular day and that the cell phone activity was an indication that he was at the grave site rather than anywhere else in the 240-square mile environs of the Victor Valley, were accepted. Perhaps the strongest evidence against Merritt consisted of a series of checks totaling more than $20,000 on the account for Joseph McStay’s business, Earth Inspired Products, he had apparently written to himself in the days just prior to, the day of and over the four days following the family’s disappearance. The prosecution maintained that Merritt had first stolen from Joseph McStay out of financial desperation brought on in part because of his gambling addiction, and that he then murdered McStay and his family after his thefts were discovered to cover up his larceny.  Merritt was the primary contractor for Earth Inspired Products, which involved a relatively lucrative arrangement by which he constructed high end water features, that is decorative fountains and artificial waterfalls, that Joseph was marketing to their mutual financial benefit. Those checks embodied certain specific anomalies, such as an atypical lack of capitalization in the names of the payees to whom the checks were made out or in the checks’ memo lines, as well as all of those checks drafted after the family’s disappearance being backdated to February 4, 2010. Based upon those differences in the way Joseph McStay drafted the checks written against the Earth Inspired Account, the prosecution asserted that Merritt had been engaged in embezzlement from the company. When Joseph became aware that Merritt was pilfering from the company, the prosecution alleged, it precipitated a confrontation between McStay and Merritt that occurred on February 4, 2010, which in turn led to Merritt’s homicidal rampage, using a three pound sledgehammer against the skulls of all of the victims, that night. A sledgehammer was found in the grave containing the bodies of Summer and Gianni McStay.
The prosecution maintained that Merritt had driven from his home in Rancho Cucamonga to Fallbrook the night of February 4 to carry out the murders, relying upon gaps in Merritt’s cellphone activity that night and a brief and grainy footage from the front yard security video camera of one of the McStay family’s neighbors on Avocado Vista Lane showing the lower portion of a vehicle, at 7:47 pm, pulling out of the McStay family driveway, to support that claim. The prosecution adamantly claimed the vehicle was Merritt’s work truck, while the prosecution’s own original expert witness on the matter and the expert for the defense said there were features of both vehicles that conclusively demonstrated the vehicles could not have been one and the same. The prosecution then ditched its first expert witness and brought in a second measurement-and-photographic-analysis-and-comparison expert to state that he could not rule out the possibility that it was Merritt’s truck depicted on the security video.
The defense subjected virtually every element of the prosecution’s case to some level of contradiction, vigorously cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses and then, after the prosecution concluded the presentation of its case, putting on a defense that lasted 10 weeks, one week longer than the prosecution’s presentation.
The defense labored to show that the Earth Inspired Products operation on which the defendant and Joseph McStay were collaborating was a financially successful one that represented income Merritt would have been unable to generate on his own, such that the defendant had no motive to kill McStay or his family.
The checks that were written during the eight-day window surrounding the family’s disappearance were a routine element of the water feature production operation, the defense team argued.
A major element of the defense strategy consisted of providing evidence and eliciting testimony that indicated another business associate McStay was involved with in marketing the water features, website designer Dan Kavanaugh, was the more logical suspect in the murders in that he had derived over $200,000 from the Earth Inspired Products operation in the nine months after the family disappeared, and McStay had nearly succeeded, at the time the deaths occurred, in cutting off the business ties he had with Kavanaugh.
Through this energetic and often intricate and involved set of expositions, including ones steeped in precise and complex technical detail, the defense sought to refute both the gravamen and the even less significant aspects of the prosecution’s case.
In their closing statements for the prosecution, both Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes and Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez, conscious of the sometimes elliptical and occasionally speculative nature of the theories and narrative of their own case, called upon the jury to disregard what they characterized as the defense’s efforts to stretch the perception of events toward conclusions that were within the realm of possibility but were out of keeping with the normally-defined boundaries of reasonable interpretation.
In the end, the jury rejected the alternative interpretation of the evidence the defense was propounding.
Prior to that outcome of the jury’s deliberations being officially announced, on Monday morning a crowd that had formed in anticipation of the verdict being read was queued up in the hallway before Department 1, the largest courtroom in the courthouse. Those seeking entrance to the proceedings had to run a gauntlet of security personnel. Once inside the courtroom, family members of the victim and a fair number of sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office personnel gravitated to the left side of the gallery, with most members of Merritt’s family, the press and neutral observers being shunted to the right side of the gallery. Before the jury filed into the room, Judge Michael Smith, noting that whatever way the verdict went there would be strong emotion among  many of those present, called upon those who could not be depended upon to contain themselves to leave at once and for those who remained to refrain from any overt expression of emotion, as the court proceedings would yet at that time not be concluded. After the 12 members of the nine-woman, three man jury filed into the room and took their places in the jury box along with two of the alternative jurors who were present, the jury’s forewoman handed the sealed verdict over to the court clerk, who then read the verdicts to the packed courtroom. There was an audible collective gasp from several members of Merritt’s extended family when the first verdict was read, accompanied by several verbal expressions of shock and disbelief. Three members of Merritt’s family left the courtroom in tears as the remainder of the verdicts were being read.
Among the members of the McStay family present were Joseph McStay’s mother Susan Blake, and his brother Michael, both of whom made less overt displays of emotion, but were unmistakably pleased at the verdict. They engaged in congratulatory embraces with other members of their family and supporters as well as with the prosecution team of Imes, Rodrigurez and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty.
Merritt, 62, now faces the possibility of the death penalty. The same jury that convicted him is yet charged with making a determination/recommendation as to whether he should be executed by lethal injection or be consigned to life in prison with no possibility of release.
The following day, Tuesday June 11, the jurors began hearing testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution to illustrate the heinous and destructive nature and impact of Merritt’s action, calculated to push the panel toward recommending the death penalty.
Susan Blake and Michael McStay were the first two victim impact witnesses to testify.
To Rodriguez, Susan Blake described her relationship with her son Joseph, whom she referred to as “Joey,” as being “super-close.” She said he was physically active, both as a surfer and as someone who had inherited a love of golfing from her father. “He loved soccer,” she said. Joseph was, she said “laid back… with a funny laugh. He was a very kind person and a very giving person. He was a very hands-on father. Joey loved kids.”
She described Summer McStay as “a very protective mother.” She said of her son, “He worked at home so he could spend time with them [his wife and children].”
Of Gianni, she said, he “was so smart. He loved dinosaurs.”  Both children always wore hats, she said.  Her son regularly put her youngest grandson, Joseph, Jr., whom she referred to by the nickname “Chubba,”  to sleep. “Momma couldn’t do it, so he would put him on his chest,” Blake said, and rocked him into slumber. Blake said her daughter-in-law Summer organized elaborate and fun birthday parties for both children. “When there was a function or a party, she was the definite organizer of that,” Blake said. “She could put it all together.”
“Gianni was a lot like Joey with curly hair,” she said. “Gianni was calm and into books. and animals and things. If it wasn’t books, it was putting together a big train with tracks that you could remote control. It was always hands-on. Chubba thought he could keep up with Gianni, even though he was teeny. He ran like a deer. He would jump when he would run.”
Blake said that her grandsons “were very close” and that upon moving to Fallbrook from San Clemente, both boys “were excited to have a yard,” after living in a small apartment.
She said she had traveled to Mexico in search of the family out of a belief they might have been there, distributed fliers there, and that she arranged to have an article published in a Mexican periodical about the family in the hopes it would lead to their return. She said she constantly posted her son emails for about a year after the family’s disappearance, trying  to contact him.
She said that well after the bodies were found, she learned that the family had been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer. “Your mind is like, ’Why? Who?’” she said.  “The hurt will never go away. You miss their sounds and their laughter, and now I go to a gravesite and talk to them. I’ll never, ever be the same. Never.” she said.
Michael McStay said that growing up as the younger brother to Joseph, who was, he said, ”three years, two months, three days” his senior, was “kind of hard. Joe was good at a lot of things. I was in the shadows. He was really good at a lot of things, so I always looked up to him.” He said he shared a passion for surfing with his brother.
Michael McStay said of his brother, “He was so kind and such a good listener. We did everything. We raced motorcycles together. We fished. We camped every weekend at Ft. Hood when we were in Dallas.  We did everything together.”
Of his brother, Michael McStay said, “I would describe him as a kind, strong Southern gentleman surfer.”
“So he adopted the beach lifestyle to his heart and soul, you would say,” Imes asked him.
“For sure, yeah,” Michael McStay responded. “Even if he had to live in a small apartment on Cabrillo [Avenue] for eight years in San Clemente, as long as he could be by the beach and have that lifestyle, that’s what he did.”
Michael said his brother was a “hands-on dad.” He said that Joseph had been ‘devastated” by the break-up of his first marriage and that in his brother’s relationship with Summer he had found happiness.
He described Summer as “an avid reader” who was witty and capable of funny comments.
He said his brother was supportive of him in all of his endeavors and encouraged him to explore his interests, including pursuing his own business. He said he had worked with his brother in building water features in the years before Earth Inspired Products took off.
His brother had a solid work ethic, Michael McStay remembered. “He was a hard worker,” he said. “He could just outwork anybody. He was organized. He was a good communicator. He put in the time.” Michael said Joseph gave him $2,500 in seed money to start his business.
Michael McStay said that his children had been deprived by the death of his brother. “They feel the loss, not to have their Uncle Joey around,” he said.  He said his children were deprived of the relationship they would have had with their cousins, Gianni and Joseph, Jr. “To just take that away for whatever reason,” Michael McStay said, “you can’t get that back. I’ll never get that back. The kids will never get that back. And for what? Money? Gambling?”
Merritt’s defense team, consisting of Raj Maline, James McGee and Jacob Guerard opted not to cross examine Susan Blake and Michael McStay, indicating they will not question any of the prosecution’s victim impact witness. Nor will they call character witnesses to offer mitigating testimony in effort to spare their client from being executed. Rather, the defense intends to use the opportunity the defense is given during the penalty phase to offer evidence that will revisit the issues litigated during the guilt phase to see if they can appeal to any “lingering doubt” the jurors yet have about whether Merritt was the perpetrator.
Despite the jury’s verdict, McGee said, “We are still convinced of Charles Merritt’s innocence.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply