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Bizarre Twists and Turns in Coin Shop Killings Case Lead Judge to Set Aside 2 Life Sentences and Grant Ex-Marine : A Second Chance at Innocence

September 05, 1993|CATHERINE GEWERTZ and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — For three years, former Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas R. Merrill has insisted from behind bars that he is innocent of a double murder and robbery at a coin shop in Newport Beach in 1989.

Today, the store's owner, who was shot four times at close range, believes Merrill is innocent and was "railroaded" into prison. A team of high-powered lawyers is fighting for his freedom. And the judge who handed him two life sentences at least agrees that Merrill was not given a fair shake by Orange County's criminal justice system.

In a rare move, the judge has thrown out Merrill's convictions, setting the stage for a retrial whose outcome is anything but certain.

According to Merrill's new lawyers, the prosecutor in his 1991 trial withheld evidence that could have led to Merrill's acquittal.

Moreover, they argue, defense attorney Gary M. Pohlson--appointed by the court to represent Merrill and paid $75,000 by taxpayers--performed so poorly that Merrill was denied his constitutional right to adequate legal representation.

Pohlson, who becomes president-elect of the Orange County Bar Assn. next year, rejects the idea that he failed Merrill. He believes his client is innocent and did not get a fair trial, but he blames the prosecutor and the co-defendant's lawyer.

The prosecutor, Jeoffrey L. Robinson--who has been scolded by appellate justices for overzealous conduct in another murder trial--denies any wrongdoing.

After five days of hearings, Superior Court Commissioner Richard M. Aronson ruled in June that the arguments presented by Merrill's new lawyers had merit. He has ordered a new trial--a trial that defense attorneys are confident will set Merrill free and that prosecutors vow to win again.

The renewed case provides a rare glimpse of how a man who may be innocent was sentenced to two life terms without the possibility of parole on evidence that was totally circumstantial, beginning with guilt by association.

From more than a thousand pages of court records emerges the story of a case rife with contradictions, finger-pointing, shifting testimony and developments that are not fully explained; a case in which the spotlight of blame moved from the first suspect, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Jon Wick, to Merrill, his bunkmate at Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

Wick was convicted and sentenced to a life term, with the possibility of parole in about 35 years. In that same trial, Merrill--who was portrayed by prosecutors as the mastermind and triggerman--was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Wick, then 20, was accused of killing two people and critically wounding a third in the March 14, 1989, robbery of the now-defunct Newport Coin Exchange. It was not until 20 months later--after Wick had been ordered to face capital murder charges--that Merrill, then 26, was arrested.

At that point, everything changed. Wick had been accused of being the lone killer. But in their joint trial, the focus shifted to Merrill, who was then accused of holding the 9-millimeter Sig Sauer automatic pistol that maimed shop owner William D. King and killed his wife, Renee, as well as Clyde Oatts, a friend of the Kings.

Merrill was cast as the brains behind the crime, and Wick the unwitting, uninformed accomplice who grabbed the store owner's shotgun and pointed it at his fellow Marine in an effort to stop the shooting.

Looking back, some people find that shift hard to explain. After all, Wick had confessed to police that he performed the crimes alone and told a friend that he would "fry" because "I was there. I did it." There was strong physical evidence linking him to the case, and only circumstantial evidence against Merrill.

"I kept thinking there must be something more and there wasn't," said Virginia Kirkmeyer, a former Huntington Beach police officer-turned-private investigator who worked for Merrill's lawyer on the case. "They took little things and made them into evidence."

The gun used in the killings and coins from the shop were found in Wick's car. His fingerprints were on the display case in the business. A coin shop receipt bore his alias and the phone number of his Marine barracks and another slip of paper had his father's name and address. The week before the crime, Wick had come into the coin shop and placed an order for $45,000 in exotic coins to be picked up on the day the robbery occurred.

After the crime, Wick repainted his bronze 1977 Chevrolet Nova white, acted nervous when authorities questioned him, and fled the Tustin Marine base the day after being interviewed by police and military investigators.

Two witnesses said they saw a man resembling Wick in the store. Shop owner King, who survived several gunshot wounds, including two in the head, identified Wick as the gunman and said consistently after his recovery that there was only one assailant that evening.

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