A new trial opened Friday for a former Marine corporal convicted of a double murder at a Newport Beach coin shop in 1989, with attorneys on both sides promising crucial testimony not heard when defendant Thomas R. Merrill was first tried four years ago.
Merrill, who is now 30, and fellow Marine Eric J. Wick were convicted together of killing two people and wounding another during a robbery attempt at the Newport Coin Exchange in March, 1989. Merrill, the prep-school educated stepson of an Episcopalian priest, was sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
But the trial judge overturned Merrill's conviction and ordered a new trial after defense lawyers argued that the prosecution withheld information from the defense and that the original defense lawyer made serious mistakes in the case. The district attorney's office agreed that evidence that pointed to Merrill's innocence had been withheld from the defense.
The new trial, before Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey, offers a fresh chance at exoneration for Merrill, whose family and backers charge that he was convicted on the basis of skimpy circumstantial evidence. Merrill's attorneys say Wick acted alone.
But prosecutors said that Wick, who is serving a sentence of 37 years to life in prison, will testify for the first time that it was Merrill who fired the shots from Wick's pistol. Wick, the son of an FBI agent, did not testify during the first trial.
"Eric is not going down alone," Deputy Dist. Atty. Rick King said during opening statements to the jury. "He's going to take Thomas Merrill with him because he believes that is the truth. And that is the truth."
King said Merrill and Wick planned to rob the Newport Coin Exchange, a store near John Wayne Airport that sold precious metals and coins, on March 19, 1989. An argument broke out inside the shop, King said, and Merrill opened fire with a 9-millimeter pistol, killing the owner's wife and a visitor, and wounding the owner.
Police arrived to find shop owner William D. King, then 39, shot four times, twice in the head. His wife, Renee King, 38, and a close friend, Clyde Oatts, 45, were dead.
The prosecutor said witnesses agreed that two people--one identified as Wick, and the other resembling Merrill--were involved in the incident. Rick King also said that as the severely wounded William King was rushed to the hospital, the shop owner told police that two men were involved. "Tom shot me," William King reportedly said as he was being rushed by ambulance to a hospital.
After three months of investigation by Newport Beach police and Naval authorities, Wick was arrested at his parents' home in Reno, when he went absent without leave from the Tustin Marine helicopter base.
Wick's car contained the murder weapon and coins from the store and his fingerprints and personal papers had been found already at the store, authorities said. Wick told police that he committed the crimes alone, but he told a friend he had an older accomplice from Reno. After a lengthy investigation, police concluded that the accomplice was Merrill.
Merrill was arrested months later, though he denied taking part and told authorities only that he stored the pistol after the shooting. Ammunition was found in his car and a witness said a man resembling Merrill left the store.
Wick and Merrill were "attached at the hip," said King, the prosecutor.
But defense attorney William J. Genego told jurors that shopkeeper William King will testify for the first time that Wick was in the store alone the day of the killings and that he had never seen Merrill before the slayings.
Genego said Wick, who had placed a $45,000 coin order at the shop under an assumed name days before the slayings, always planned to kill the shopkeepers and could not be trusted now. Genego derided prosecution plans to have Wick point the finger at Merrill, suggesting Wick was offering that account in a desperate bid to get out of prison.
Wick's testimony, expected Monday, is sure to be a double-edged sword for prosecutors. Prosecutor Rick King told jurors to believe Wick's account of Merrill's involvement, but warned them that much else of what Wick says will be lies.
Merrill, wearing glasses and a suit, sat without expression during the three-hour opening session. His mother, Sara Merrill, who was a major force in appealing the earlier conviction, sat alone in the spectators' section of the courtroom.
"I feel very, very hopeful that we'll see justice this time," she said after the session.