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After all-day hearing, sentencing for man convicted of killing McStay family pushed to Tuesday

Chase Merritt  in court
Charles “Chase” Merritt, left, attends the first portion of his sentencing hearing at the San Bernardino Justice Center on Friday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Lengthy post-trial arguments plus an unexpected attempt by the defendant to fire his attorney ran so long Friday that the expected sentencing of a man convicted of killing a Fallbrook family was bumped to next week.

Charles “Chase” Merritt — 62 years old and jailed without bail since his November 2014 arrest — has long maintained his innocence in the 2010 slayings of business associate Joseph McStay, 40, his wife Summer McStay, 43, and their two preschool sons.

Their bodies were found in shallow desert graves outside Victorville.

Last June, a San Bernardino jury found Merritt guilty of four counts of murder. The panel recommended he receive the death penalty for the killings of Summer McStay and the children.

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Sentencing was scheduled for Friday, and perhaps 20 family members and supporters of the McStays were in the courtroom. Some were expected to make statements to San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Smith.

Instead, much of the day was spent on defense motions, including a bid for a new trial, which Smith rejected. Time ran out on the court day and Smith set it to pick up again Tuesday.

But before bringing down the gavel for the day, the judge agreed to hear from Joseph’s father, Patrick McStay, who had scheduled a weekend flight to return to his home in Houston. The still-grieving father and grandfather struggled to get through his prepared statement, which laid out the impact the deaths had on him.

The McStay family
Joseph and Summer McStay with their two children, Joseph Jr. 3, front, and Gianni, 4.
(Family photo)

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The elder McStay said Merritt had destroyed several lives because of his “narcissism and psychotic actions.”

“I hope you burn in hell,” Patrick McStay said, “but I will pray for your family, and your children — as they are to me all just more innocent victims ... that you had absolutely no regard or caring for when you murdered my family and caused such pain and suffering that will last forever.”

His words capped a long day of arguments from Merritt’s defense attorney, Rajan Maline, who raised a number of challenges with the judge.

Maline pointed to nuances in cell tower evidence that prosecutors said placed Merritt’s phone at the site of the desert graves two days after the family disappeared. He also questioned the prosecution’s timeline of events.

The proceedings took a detour after lunch when Maline suddenly announced to the judge that Merritt had just said he no longer wanted Maline to represent him. The revelation drew gasps throughout the courtroom.

But after meeting with Merritt and Maline in chambers, Smith nixed the request.

A few hours later, the judge also rejected Maline’s requests for a new trial, finding sufficient evidence to support Merritt’s conviction.

Friday’s courtroom audience included four people who had served on Merritt’s jury.

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After the judge adjourned the day’s proceedings, Merritt’s supporters — including a sister and the mother of his children — addressed a pack of reporters outside the courthouse, giving their first public statements.

Both sister Juanita Merritt and ex-girlfriend Cathy Jarvis insisted Merritt is innocent, and Jarvis said he had been home with her in Rancho Cucamonga on the night the family was last seen.

“There’s no way he could hurt a human being,” Juanita Merritt said. ”And there is definitely no way he could hurt children.”

Asked about Merritt’s attempt to part ways with his attorney during the hearing, the two women said Merritt was frustrated.

“He knows he’s been railroaded,” Juanita Merritt said. “No one will listen to him and see the truth.”

Later, she said she grieves for the extended McStay family, who she said are “blinded because of their grief.”

“They want justice for their family,” she said. “I totally understand. But it’s not my brother.”

Joseph McStay, his wife and two children disappeared in February 2010, their whereabouts a mystery until their remains were discovered in November 2013.

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Merritt was arrested a year later, and it took another four years to get the case to trial. During that time, Merritt parted ways with several attorneys, and twice was allowed to represent himself.

The trial took another five months. Last June, Merritt was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder. The jury recommended he be executed for the slayings of McStay’s wife and sons.

Although the jury has recommended execution, the sentencing decision falls to Smith.

McStay ran a business that specialized in selling indoor water features, and often hired Merritt to craft the custom pieces.

During closing arguments last May at Merritt’s murder trial, prosecutors argued that McStay had tired of troubles with Merritt. They also suggested McStay had caught Merritt — who owed him more than $40,000 by McStay’s count — dipping into one of his business accounts.

They pointed to the totality of evidence, which included cellphone data that put Merritt near the graves days after the disappearance and a little of his DNA on the steering wheel of the family’s abandoned SUV.

Merritt’s attorneys said the prosecutors cherry-picked or misconstrued evidence. They argued there had been no theft, no motive and nothing to tie Merritt to the brutal beatings.

The sentencing hearing is slated to resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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