A former Marine corporal incarcerated for five years was freed into the arms of his tearful mother Friday when a jury acquitted him in a 1989 double slaying during a robbery at a Newport Beach coin shop.
Thomas R. Merrill, 31, who sat stone-faced through two separate retrials, sighed heavily, clutched his lawyer’s hand and mouthed “Thank you” to jurors after the court clerk read the not-guilty verdicts.
Moments later, his mother, Sara Merrill, who unswervingly championed her son’s innocence, rushed emotionally to the front of the courtroom and embraced him.
“My darling! My love!” she said as Thomas Merrill buried his face in her shoulder.
Thomas Merrill smiled but said little as he headed back to Orange County Jail for discharge. “I just want to go home,” he said.
Six hours later, wearing jail-issue sandals and carrying his books and drawings in a paper sack, Merrill was a free man. Met by relatives outside the jail, he said he will never again trust the American justice system.
Prosecutors, he said, “look at it as a game, or a fight. . . . They think they can do everything to win,” he said. “But they carry it too far. They never admit when they’re wrong. They keep going, and going and going.”
Sara Merrill sat through the six-week trial in a gallery that was often otherwise empty, and jurors said they came to recognize her as Thomas Merrill’s mother. She told reporters the verdict was merely a “small correction on a large injustice.”
“I can’t tell you what this has been like knowing an innocent man has been in prison for . . . years,” she said. “It’s been torture for us.”
The acquittal closed a long and extraordinary legal battle in which Merrill was once convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders but then awarded a second trial after a judge found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. That retrial ended with a hung jury in May, giving way to a third trial that ended Friday.
Defense attorney John D. Barnett, who represented Merrill in the two most recent trials, said the case’s unusual history made this victory like no other he had experienced.
“It’s off the scale,” Barnett said. “To have him go home instead of back to prison for the rest of his life--that’s as good as it gets.”
News of the impending verdict drew some of the county’s top homicide prosecutors to the courtroom. A defense lawyer who once defended Merrill dropped in to listen.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard King, who prosecuted the two retrials, said the verdict was a letdown.
“Our office is disappointed but we respect the verdict. The jury was conscientious and listened to the evidence carefully,” the prosecutor said. “This case is done. It’s over and it’s time to move on.”
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said the headline-making case was a difficult one.
“We thought we had a good shot at it, but the jury has spoken,” Capizzi said. “Next case.”
Authorities alleged that Merrill, the prep school-educated stepson of an Episcopalian minister, and an accomplice shot and wounded the owner of Newport Coin Exchange and killed the owner’s wife and a close friend during a robbery in March, 1989.
The other suspect, Eric J. Wick, was later convicted and is serving a prison term of 37 years to life. Wick, the son of an FBI agent, testified during the two latest trials that Merrill fired the shots.
But jurors, some weeping as they left the courtroom, said they examined the evidence carefully for nine hours and concluded the prosecution’s case was too weak to support Merrill’s conviction.
“There was a lack of evidence,” said juror Judith Arglebin of Cypress. “We were looking for some evidence that he was guilty but we didn’t find it.”
While some jurors believed that Merrill was innocent, others suspected he might have been guilty of some other crime for which there was no proof, Arglebin said.
“I thought there may have been some guilt somewhere,” she said, adding that she thought Merrill might have helped in a cover-up. The jury, however, was not allowed to consider such an option in its verdict.
“There were no prints, no evidence. We felt we had to do the right thing,” said juror Leena Shirgaokar, 25, of Fullerton.
The acquittal was cheered by one of the victims, coin shop owner William D. King, whose wife, Renee King, and close friend Clyde Oatts were killed in the robbery.
William King was shot four times--once in the head--and gave prosecutors one of their central pieces of evidence when he told paramedics that two men were involved in the attack and that “Tom shot me.”
But ever since, King has insisted that Merrill was not present at the time of the robbery and had never been in his shop. The defense argued that the remark about “Tom” was unreliable because King had been shot in the head.
“Now Tom can go on with his life and I can go on with mine,” said King, 43, who lives with his current wife in Arizona.
“I was maimed. My wife was shot and killed. My best friend was shot and killed, and it’s paramount to me that the right person be punished,” he said. “But it is just as important that the person who didn’t do it be freed.”
Even so, Merrill very nearly ended up spending his life behind bars.
He and Wick were convicted after the first trial in 1991 on two counts of murder, along with attempted murder, burglary, robbery and conspiracy. Merrill was sentenced to two life sentences without possibility of parole.
Commissioner Richard M. Aronson, the trial judge, overturned Merrill’s conviction and ordered another trial after the new defense lawyers argued that the prosecution had illegally withheld information. They maintained that it pointed to Merrill’s innocence and that the original defense lawyer had made serious mistakes in the case.
King, subsequently assigned to prosecute the case, said evidence was later presented during the retrials that the information--centering on a witness who could not identify Merrill--never was withheld from the original defense lawyers.
Barnett, a veteran defense attorney who secured the acquittal of former Los Angeles Police Officer Theodore J. Briseno in the Rodney G. King case tried in state court, said Merrill’s reversal of fortune “demonstrates just how fragile the pursuit of justice is.”
The defense lawyer said he disagreed with the decision to try the case a third time, but stopped short of criticism.
“I have a great deal of respect for Rick King,” Barnett said of the prosecutor. “I believe he believed he was doing the right thing.”
But Sara Merrill said the family planned to file civil lawsuits against parties in the case that she would not name. “There are many people who have committed misconduct,” she said.
A native of Wales who now lives in Baltimore, she worked unflaggingly to free her son, enlisting the support of everyone from a top Episcopal priest to a member of the British Parliament.
She stayed for months at a Santa Ana hotel and gobbled snacks from the courthouse cafeteria.
For her son, the long wait was spent sharing a cell with five men and, for inspiration, reading the accounts of Vietnam War prisoners.
Nicknamed “Major Tom” by fellow inmates, the former Marine rarely got exercise or a chance to practice his martial arts. He gained weight and wrestled with bouts of depression. “But I refused to stop being human,” he said.
Now that he is free, Merrill is looking forward to being reunited with his stepfather, who lives in a convalescent home in Baltimore. His uncle from Wales plans to write a book on the family’s ordeal.
Times staff writers Anna Cekola, Matt Lait and Lily Dizon and correspondent Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Road to Acquittal
* March 14, 1989: Renee King and Clyde Oatts are killed and King’s husband, William, is gravely wounded during a robbery at Newport Coin Exchange. William King owns the shop.
* June 8, 1989: Marine Lance Cpl. Eric J. Wick is arrested in Reno in connection with the killings. Initially, Wick is accused of being the lone killer.
* Nov. 20, 1990: Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas R. Merrill, Wick’s bunkmate at the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station, is arrested. At a joint trial, prosecutors portray Merrill as the mastermind and triggerman.
* July 1, 1991: Wick and Merrill are found guilty of two murders, conspiracy, attempted murder, robbery, burglary and various charges related to the use of a firearm. Wick is sentenced to 37 years to life in prison. Merrill is sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
* June 28, 1993: Superior Court Commissioner Richard M. Aronson orders a new trial. Aronson agreed with the defense lawyers’ contention that prosecutors might have withheld evidence and that Merrill’s first defense attorney did not adequately represent him.
* March 24, 1995: Merrill’s second trial begins in Orange County Superior Court.
* May 17, 1995: After nearly eight days of deliberation, a jury declares a mistrial, with seven jurors in favor of conviction.
* June 14, 1995: Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey orders a third trial for Merrill.
* Aug. 29, 1995: Merrill’s third trial begins.
* Sept. 13, 1995: A jury, citing insufficient evidence, acquits Merrill of all charges.
Source: Los Angeles Times ; Researched by LILY DIZON / Los Angeles Times