Post McStay Murder Conviction, Merritt Parts Company With His Lawyer

James McGee, a former prosecutor who early in his transition to being an attorney in private practice took on the high profile case of defending Charles “Chase” Merritt against accusations of having brutally murder all four members of the McStay Family in 2010, has withdrawn as Merritt’s co-counsel after an unspecified dispute developed between them.
Merritt in June was convicted of first degree murder in the deaths of Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, Gianni McStay, 4, and Joseph McStay Jr., 3. The jury then recommended that he receive the death penalty for the murder of Summer, Gianni and Joseph Jr., and that he be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole in the death of Joseph McStay.
McGee, who had successfully prosecuted murder cases as a member of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office over a span of a decade-and-a-half, had taken on the assignment of representing Merritt in 2016, shortly after he had left the district attorney’s office and had forged a partnership with longtime defense attorney Raj Maline.
Maline and McGee then spent more than two-and-a-half years preparing for trial. Jury selection commenced in December 2018 and the trial began the first week of January, 2019. In the division of duties between the two attorneys, McGee handled the most scientifically intricate of the issues pertaining to guilt or innocence. Those included DNA analysis and the methods used to determine whether grainy and somewhat indistinct images captured on a neighbor’s security camera of a vehicle that appeared to be leaving the McStay home at 7:47 p.m. on the night of February 4, 2010 matched far clearer higher resolution three dimensional photos taken of Merritt’s truck. It was the prosecution’s contention that Merritt had killed the family on February 4, 2010.
The prosecution presented evidence to support the suppositions that Merritt owed Joseph McStay as much as $43,000 as a consequence of their business dealings together in the manufacturing and sale of high-end and large-scale decorative water fountains and artificial waterfalls, and that Merritt was embezzling from the business in the days just prior to the family’s disappearance. The prosecution’s theory was that Joseph McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business and that Merritt’s financial desperation and concern Joseph McStay was going to inform authorities about his thefts pushed Merritt to kill his business partner to silence him, and the circumstance necessitated that he kill the rest of the family. The prosecution bolstered its case with evidence showing Merritt was in financial straits; was gambling to excess; that he wrote checks to himself from the water feature company’s account and signed them using Joseph’s name, backdating checks written after the family’s disappearance to February 4; that he called a Quickbooks representative five days after the family’s disappearance in an effort to delete all information relating to check-writing activity on the business account; and that he shut his cell phone off at crucial times in the prosecution’s timeline relating to the murders. The prosecution further maintained that Merritt’s cell phone activity placed him in the desert area north of Victorville on February 6, 2010, at a time when prosecutors said Merritt was depositing the bodies of all four family members in shallow graves.
The McStay family lived in the north San Diego County community of Fallbrook, and the case had originally been dealt with by authorities there as a multiple missing persons case.
The skeletal remains of the family were found in November 2013, more than three years after the family’s disappearance. An investigation ensued and a year later, in November 2014, Merritt, who was in the midst of writing a book about the McStay Family disappearance, was arrested by members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for the murders.
The defense successfully countered much, though not all, of the prosecution’s case, which was laid out over more than two months in January, February and into March of this year. The defense in March, April and May offered a variant interpretation of the evidence in the case which held that the business prospects for Merritt’s and Joseph McStay’s mutual business was looking up at the time of the family’s disappearance. Moreover, McGee and Maline demonstrated, another of Joseph McStay’s business associates, Dan Kavanaugh, who had embezzled from the water feature business more than $207,000 – far more money than the prosecution alleged Merritt had stolen – was the more logical suspect in the family’s killings. In April, McGee, physically exhausted, collapsed, necessitating that Maline elicit testimony from several of the defense witnesses who McGee had spent months preparing to examine. Just prior to the defense resting, McGee had made a sufficient recovery to examine a crucial witness, Dr. Leonid Rudin, who had originally been retained by the prosecution to establish that it was Merritt’s truck seen leaving the McStay premises the fateful night of February 4, 2010. Under McGee’s guidance, Rudin told the jury that his in-depth analysis determined the vehicle seen in the neighbor’s security video was not Merritt’s truck, and that the prosecution grew disinterested in having him testify and did not call him to the witness stand after he made his findings clear in private communications with one of the prosecutors.
Despite the damage that McGee appeared to have inflicted on the prosecution’s case by his skillful presentation of Rudin’s testimony and its attendant evidence, Merritt was convicted.
Merritt was scheduled to be sentenced in September, with the judge who presided over the case, Michael A. Smith, constrained to two options: death or life without the possibility of parole. Over the summer, however, differences developed between Merritt and McGee. By the time for sentencing arrived, McGee had filed a request with the court to be relieved as Merritt’s co-counsel. Over prosecution objections, Judge Smith granted a delay in the sentencing as he pondered the implication of granting McGee’s request with regard to how Merritt’s loss of a main cog in his defense team would impact the appeal process that will inevitably follow his sentencing.
The grounds for McGee’s request are publicly unknown, beyond his assertion that a conflict had come about between him and his client. The detail of that conflict is in some fashion laid bare in sealed documents McGee submitted to Judge Michael A. Smith.
Without making those documents public or giving any hint as to their substance, Judge Smith earlier this month granted McGee’s request to be relieved as Merritt’s legal representative going forward. Maline is to remain as Merritt’s counsel and Merritt is now scheduled to be sentenced on January 17, 2020.
-Mark Gutglueck

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