Defense attorney in McStay murder trial: ‘Their whole case is motive’

The screen in a San Bernardino courtroom showed photos taken inside the Fallbrook home of Joseph and Summer McStay and their two boys after the family vanished in 2010.

There were no signs of blood or violence, but trash was strewn on the dusty floor. Food was left on counters and furniture. It was an untidy scene.

The theory that the family was attacked inside their home before their killer cleaned up the mess, didn’t jibe, defense attorney James McGee told jurors Wednesday during closing arguments in the murder trial of his client, Charles “Chase” Merritt.


In a summation Tuesday, Prosecutors suggested that something happened inside the home, while acknowledging it is unclear when and where the family was killed.

“The idea that this was done here is just ridiculous,” McGee countered. “What evidence did they show you that it was cleaned up?”

He argued that authorities have wrongly accused Merritt of bludgeoning the couple and their two boys, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, and burying them in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert.

The mystery-turned-tragedy drew national attention and has been the subject of documentaries and a book. The website Law & Crime has streamed the five-month trial live.

In the fall of 2013, an off-road motorcyclist discovered parts of a skull in the desert off Interstate 15 in Victorville, about an hour north of the family’s home. The remains of McStay, 40, were found buried with Joey Jr. A second grave contained the remains of Summer, 43, and Gianni along with a rusty sledgehammer.

“If they admit they made a mistake and arrested the wrong guy how’s that gonna look?” McGee said. “How do you go back to that family now and say we might’ve messed up?”

Sitting at a table behind him, a prosecutor shook his head.

“This case is brought forward not on evidence, but on egos and pride,” McGee continued, attacking the case prosecutors have admitted is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence.

They argued that Merritt, who built custom waterfalls for McStay’s company, was motivated by greed and self-interest when he carried out the crimes.

He owed Joseph McStay more than $42,000 and, after the disappearance, forged checks to himself from McStay’s QuickBooks account, Deputy Dist. Atty. Britt Imes said at Tuesday’s hearing.

But the defense team pointed to another of McStay’s business associates, who they said siphoned money from McStay’s accounts after he went missing. Prosecutors said that associate had traveled to Hawaii at the time, but defense attorneys said no boarding pass or ticket verified that.

“Their whole case is motive,” said defense attorney Rajan Maline. “They’ve spun a lot of tales to you. They’ve given you half truths.”

About two weeks before his 2014 arrest, investigators interviewed Merritt for eight hours. They told him repeatedly that his truck was captured on surveillance footage in Fallbrook, Maline said.

“Those detectives believed that they were going to get a confession,” Maline said.”That’s why it lasted eight hours … It’s only because they believed they could crack him.”

Afterward, Merritt didn’t flee — he went back to work, Maline said.

Prosecutors have argued that the shadow of a truck consistent with Merritt’s was captured on a home security camera in the McStay’s Fallbrook neighborhood.

They are scheduled to continue their rebuttal on Thursday, before the case is handed to the jury.