A jury Monday recommended death for the man convicted of killing Joseph and Summer McStay and their two children before burying their bodies in the Mojave Desert, marking a dramatic end to a mystery-turned-tragedy that baffled detectives for years.
Jurors in San Bernardino deliberated for several hours over three days before reaching a verdict in the penalty phase of the five-month trial of Charles “Chase” Merritt.
The same panel earlier this month found Merritt, 62, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of the McStays, and their two young sons Joey Jr., 3, and Gianni, 4. Merritt was found responsible for multiple murders, making him eligible for the death penalty.
Jurors recommended that Merritt face death in the slayings of Summer McStay and the two boys, and life without the possibility of parole in the killing of Joseph McStay.
As a Superior Court clerk first uttered the word death while reading the verdict, a McStay relative gasped: “Yes.” Another wiped away tears. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith thanked jurors for their time and diligence during the trial, which ran two months over schedule.
Merritt covered his face, resting his head on his fist. He is due back in court in September for sentencing.
After the hearing, prosecutors and one juror declined to comment to reporters outside the courthouse. Defense attorney Jacob Guerard said he observed the rest of the panel being escorted out a backdoor.
“We’re disappointed, but the fight does not stop,” Guerard said of the verdict. The defense team has maintained that Merritt is innocent.
Both the prosecution and defense teams spoke to jurors, but neither side had any insight into their deliberations or decision-making.
The jury’s recommendation marked a victory for prosecutors who built their case almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. After more than nine years, it was an emotional end to a case that drew national attention, serving as the subject of documentaries and a book. Merritt’s trial was streamed live by the legal news website Law & Crime.
The McStays disappeared from their Fallbrook home in February 2010, leaving behind uneaten food on counters and other signs of a swift departure, which baffled police and family members.
But 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 McStay, 43, and Gianni along with a rusty sledgehammer.
Prosecutors said Merritt, of Rancho Cucamonga, was motivated by greed and self-interest. Days before the disappearance, Joseph McStay accused Merritt — a welder who helped build custom water fountains for McStay’s company — of owing him thousands of dollars.
Joseph McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, testified during the trial and the penalty phase of the case, telling jurors she had held on to hope the family were alive until their remains were found.
She said she was in her office in Valencia and collapsed to the ground when her other son, Michael McStay, called to give her the news.
The details were brutal: Her son’s skull was shattered; Summer, buried with a sledgehammer, sustained a blow to the jaw. Both boys, who prosecutors say were killed because they could have identified the attacker, had skull fractures.
For nearly a year after her son went missing, Blake sent him emails regularly, asking where he was and what he was doing.
“Call me,” she’d write. “I’ll help you.”
While Blake was on the stand, a prosecutor asked how her life has changed since her family vanished.
“One minute you have a whole family, and the next minute, half your family is just missing, and the hurt will never go away,” Blake said. “We’ll never ever be the same. Never.”
Defense attorneys maintain that Merritt is innocent and did not call any witnesses to offer mitigating testimony.
“This case is: Our client didn’t do it. They got the wrong guy,” defense attorney Rajan Maline told reporters outside the courtroom after he was convicted.
The defense had asked jurors to consider any lingering doubt they had about who committed the crime when deciding on a punishment.
Despite the verdict, it is unlikely Merritt will actually be executed anytime soon.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in California, vowing that no prisoner will be executed while he is in office because of a belief that capital punishment is discriminatory, unjust and “inconsistent with our bedrock values.”
Even so, prosecutors across the state have continued to try capital cases. Some have called on Newsom to end the moratorium.