Merritt Jury Recommends 1 Life & 3 Death Sentences In McStay Family Killings

Jurors on Monday, June 24 returned mixed recommendations on what the penalties should be for the 2010 murders of the McStay family the panel on June 10 convicted Charles Merritt of committing. For killing Joseph McStay, with whom Merritt was a longstanding business associate, the jury called for Merritt to serve out the rest of his life in prison. The price that should be exacted upon him for his murders of Joseph McStay’s wife, Summer, and the couple’s four-year-old and three-year old sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr., is death by lethal injection in each case, the jury determined.
The recommendations on punishment for each count Merritt was convicted on were read separately. On two of the occasions when a death recommendation was pronounced, Merritt, sitting to the right of his defense co-counsel Raj Maline, and in front of his defense co-counsel James McGee, briefly buried his face in his hands.
Merritt’s conviction on June 10 came five months and three days after opening statements in the trial were made on January 7.
It was the prosecution’s contention that what Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty called “a mountain” of circumstantial evidence implicated Merritt in the crime.
Relying upon gaps in Merritt’s cellphone activity that evening and brief and grainy footage from the front yard security video camera of one of the McStay family’s neighbors on Avocado Vista Lane in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County, the prosecution maintained that Merritt had driven from his home in Rancho Cucamonga to Fallbrook the night of February 4, 2010 to carry out the murders. Again using call activity registered on his cellphone against him, the prosecution placed him in the High Desert in the late morning and early afternoon of February 6, 2010, where it was asserted Merritt was in a remote desert area between Victorville and Oro Grande, burying the family’s bodies in two shallow graves. Those graves had tire impressions leading away from them. Those tracks, one set of which was 76 inches wide and the other of which was 73 inches wide, were formed in the soft desert earth that existed on February 6, 2010 because of the slightly more than one inch of rainfall that fell in the Victorville environs that day, the prosecution alleged. And one of those sets of tracks matched, the prosecution insinuated, the tires on Merritt’s work truck.
Merritt’s motivation for the murders, the prosecution maintained, consisted of the consideration that Merritt had begun stealing from Joseph McStay out of financial desperation brought on in part because of Merritt’s gambling addiction, and that he then murdered McStay and his family as part of an effort to cover up his larceny after his thefts were discovered. Merritt was the primary contractor for McStay’s company, Earth Inspired Products, which involved a relatively lucrative arrangement by which Merritt constructed high end water features such as decorative fountains and artificial waterfalls that Joseph McStay was marketing to their mutual financial benefit.
Perhaps the strongest evidence against Merritt consisted of a series of checks totaling more than $20,000 on the Earth Inspired Products account which 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.  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 and 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 from the way Joseph McStay drafted 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 further alleged that trace amounts of Merritt’s DNA found in the McStay family’s Isuzu Trooper abandoned at the border in San Ysidro identified him as the person who had left that vehicle there in what was implied was a ploy to suggest the family had fled to Mexico to throw investigators off his track. After the family’s disappearance, the case hung in mysterious limbo until the graves were discovered by a motorcyclist dirt-biking in the desert on Memorial Day 2013. After a year-long investigation by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Merritt was arrested in November 2014.
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 exhibition of its witnesses and evidence.
The defense demonstrated that the vehicle seen on the McStay family’s neighbor’s security video footage pulling out of the McStay family driveway at 7:47 on the evening of February 4, 2010 was not, as the prosecution insisted, Merritt’s truck, and that the prosecution’s own original measurement-and-photographic-analysis-and-comparison expert witness on the matter had conclusively demonstrated the vehicles could not have been one and the same before the prosecution fired him.
The prosecution further demonstrated that much of the prosecution’s evidence was subject to differing – meaning both sinister and benign – interpretations. Evidence in the form of cell phone records that placed Merritt somewhere in the High Desert in the Victorville/Oro Grande/Hesperia/Apple Valley area on February 6, 2010 was implicative, the defense illustrated, only if several of the prosecution’s speculative assertions were accepted. In particular, the defense brought forth to the jurors, the prosecution’s theory of guilt held up only if the family had been buried in the shallow desert graves on that particular day and that Merritt’s cellphone activity was an indication that he was at the gravesite rather than anywhere else in the 240-square mile environs of the Victor Valley. The prosecution’s evidence on all of these issues was less than exact.
Though the prosecution throughout the trial had been insistent that the family had been killed in their Fallbrook home on the evening of February 4, 2010, during its closing arguments it backed away from that theory after the defense had repeatedly brought that assertion 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.
The defense capped its case with the provision of evidence and elicitation of testimony that indicated another business associate Joseph 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.
In the end, however, the jury rejected the defense’s energetic and often intricate and involved set of expositions, including ones steeped in precise and complex technical detail, in favor of the prosecution’s far less sophisticated assertions. 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 what they said were the normally-defined boundaries of reasonable interpretation.
Ultimately, the jury rejected the alternative interpretation of the evidence the defense was propounding.
During the penalty phase, the prosecution put on victim impact testimony from Joseph McStay’s mother and brother, Susan Blake and Michael McStay, as well as from Summer McStay’s brother and sister, Kenneth Aranda and Tracy Russell. Imes and Daugherty then told the jury that Merritt’s action merited the death penalty.
The defense in its presentation during the penalty phase forwent cross examining the victim impact witnesses and putting on character witnesses for Merritt. Instead, Merritt’s co-counsel Raj Maline sought to reiterate a litany of elements in the defense’s case during the guilt phase, emphasizing as best he could the corresponding counterpoints of weakness in the prosecution’s case in an effort to appeal to any lingering doubt the prosecution had. Maline said the prosecution’s theory of guilt was not supported by the evidence that had been presented.
After the pronouncement of the jury’s sentencing recommendations, the entirety of the jury was summoned to the internal quarters on the courthouse’s second floor behind the courtroom where the deliberation rooms and the judges’ chambers are located, and which are beyond access to the general public. Once the jury was ensconced there, the McStay family’s relatives were invited to join the jury for formal introductions, exchanges and expressions of appreciation.
A sizable contingent of the national, Southern California and local press were present and told by San Bernardino County Superior Court Spokesman Dennis Smith that the venue at which the jurors would be available for interviews if they chose to be interviewed was within the courtyard at the south entrance to the courthouse. When, in compliance with Smith’s instructions the lion’s share of the press corps went to that location and set up in anticipation of speaking to some of the jurors, the jurors were hustled out the back and secured entrance of the courthouse with only one member of the jury, who departed early and separately from the others, leaving the courthouse through the public entrance/exit. She declined to make any comment.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith, before whom all of the pretrial and trial proceedings in the case were heard, set a sentencing date of September 27. Smith has the authority to countermand the jury’s recommendation of death and reduce the sentence on all of the murders to life in prison without the possibility of parole but cannot second guess the jury with regard to its decision to sentence Merritt to life rather than death on the murder of Joseph McStay.
-Mark Gutglueck

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