Arguing that Justin Merriman has used a network of skinhead gang members to intimidate witnesses in his murder trial, Ventura County prosecutors told a judge Tuesday that he remains a threat and again asked that the 26-year-old defendant's jail communications be restricted.
Dressed in jail blues and wearing a reddish-brown beard, Merriman pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Ventura County Superior Court to charges of conspiracy, solicitation and dissuading witnesses by force or threat.
A trial date on those charges was set for March 27, 2000--the same day Merriman is scheduled to stand trial on charges of rape, murder, deadly assault, resisting arrest and other crimes. Merriman of Ventura is accused of murdering Santa Monica College student Katrina Montgomery in 1992.
While defense attorneys prepare for the murder case, prosecutors say Merriman, who is being held without bail in Ventura County Jail, has tapped into a network of white supremacist gang members in the state prison system in order to threaten witnesses, both behind bars and within the community.
Prosecutors say Merriman solicited help from six women, including his mother, to mail letters to prison inmates that identify people who testified before a grand jury last year.
During Tuesday's arraignment, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh renewed a request to cut off Merriman's jail visits and phone calls, arguing that Merriman abused those privileges by circulating a "hit list."
"We want to limit the defendant's communication completely," Bamieh said.
The prosecutors sought a similar court order in early May. But Judge Donald Coleman was reluctant to cut off Merriman's communications. Instead, Coleman issued a temporary order, instructing the jail to monitor Merriman's phone calls and visits.
On Tuesday, Bamieh told Judge Vincent J. O'Neill, now assigned to the case, that a more restrictive court order is necessary. He wants the defendant's visits with anyone but his attorneys prohibited.
O'Neill is expected to issue a ruling on the prosecutor's request at a hearing later this month.
Defense attorney Willard Wiksell requested a separate hearing on the communications issue. He said Coleman's order, which remains in effect, is sufficient.
During the discussion, Merriman leaned over to his attorney and indicated he believes his phone calls are being recorded, which Bamieh denied.
As a result of the December grand jury proceedings, Merriman was indicted on 25 criminal counts, including the rape and murder of Montgomery.
One witness told the grand jury that he watched Merriman rape Montgomery in his bedroom after they left a party in Oxnard. The witness testified that Merriman later stabbed Montgomery in neck, beat her with a crescent wrench and slit her throat.
Merriman has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutors will decide next month whether to seek the death penalty.
In the five months since the first indictment, Merriman allegedly solicited help from his mother, Beverlee Sue Merriman, and other women to distribute letters and grand jury transcripts to fellow gang members in prison.
His mother and two of the other women--Samantha Medina and Jennifer Wepplo--have been indicted on charges of conspiracy and witness intimidation.
In late May, Justin Merriman was also indicted on charges of conspiracy, witness intimidation and solicitation to dissuade witnesses by force.
The three other women he is accused of conspiring with have not been charged. Bamieh said the case remains under investigation, however, and could result in additional indictments.