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Teen Gets Life for Execution-Style Murder of Boy

Courts: Tommy Miller, now 18, shot Carl Dan Claes, 14, in a dispute over stereo equipment. Accomplice given 28 years to life.

March 08, 1997|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Amid heavy security in a crowded courtroom, two teenagers convicted in the execution-style murder of a 14-year-old boy were given the maximum sentence Friday by a judge who cited their "complete absence of any conscience."

Tommy Miller, 18, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno for shooting Carl Dan Claes in the head three times at close range in a dispute over Claes' $2,500 disk-jockey stereo system.

A second defendant, 19-year-old Jason Merritt, received a sentence of 28 years to life in prison for his role in the murder.

Animosity between the victim's family and relatives of those convicted of his death was evident throughout the trial, and observers Friday had to pass through a metal detector before entering the courtroom, a rare occurrence in the Santa Ana courthouse.

In a dramatic statement to the court, Claes' mother, Danella George, lashed out at Miller and Merritt, referring to them as "sociopathic predators."

George's remarks were particularly scathing toward Miller, who turned to face her during the entire 30 minutes that she spoke. That angered George.

"Could you please ask the defendant not to look at me?" George asked the judge at one point. "I really don't want to look at Satan's eyes."

Miller continued to watch, though, as George spoke of her son's life. She played a videotape of the hockey-loving boy performing a mock sportscast and displayed a panel with more than 100 photographs of him, ranging from baby pictures to photos of him in his casket.

"Carl was barely 14 years old when his life was destroyed," George said. "There will be no graduation, no wedding, no grandchildren. . . . There will be no more Mother's Days for me."

Before listening to George's statement, which at one point drove Miller's father from the courtroom, the two defendants made some brief remarks.

"I'd like to apologize for what happened," Merritt said, speaking quietly. "What happened was not right. . . . I'd like to say I'm sorry for putting my family and the victim's family through this."

Miller was also apologetic.

"I know saying I'm sorry is not going to change anything," he said. "I can't change what happened. If I could, I would."

Miller then apologized specifically to the victim's 75-year-old grandfather, Dan George, with whom the boy was living at the time of his death.

"I know in my heart he'll probably never forgive me, and neither will Danella George," Miller said.

The grandfather, who also spoke in court Friday, was critical of both police and probation officials whom he has said were not monitoring Miller's actions closely enough while he has been in custody.

He urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence, saying, "I only wish it was death, the same as they gave Carl."

Dan George said he was particularly appalled over the fact that the youths went to eat at a fast-food restaurant immediately after his grandson was shot. He also spoke of his outrage on hearing in court a tape recording of the pair concocting a cover-up story while they were in Juvenile Hall.

"It shows how cold-blooded these two murderers are," he said.

Miller was 16 and Merritt 17 at the time of the crime. They were tried as adults on a charge of first-degree murder and convicted by a jury in December.

The case was particularly chilling not only because of the ages and the motives of the defendants but also because testimony during the trial described rampant drug use, chronic truancy and easy access to guns.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Kirkwood, who prosecuted the case, had argued during the trial that the two teens plotted to kill Claes in a dispute over the stereo system, which Claes had loaned to Miller but wanted back.

On the night of the killing, the three drove to the foothills of Tustin, Kirkwood said, where Miller shot Claes once in the back of the head as Merritt waited nearby in a van. Afraid that Claes might not be dead, the pair returned a few minutes later, the prosecution contended, and Miller shot Claes in the head twice more at close range.

Miller's attorney, William Morrissey, argued that his client has brain damage consistent with heavy drug use and was suffering from methamphetamine "psychosis" when he shot Claes.

Merritt's attorney, William Elliott said his client was only "vicariously liable" for Claes' death, and he urged the judge to be lenient on his client.

But Briseno disagreed, saying, "This killing could not have gone down without Merritt's involvement."

After the sentencing, Miller's mother, 45-year-old Dawn Miller, wept as she watched her son being led way. Less than 10 feet away, Danella George clenched her fists as she prepared to leave the courtroom. "Hallelujah," she said quietly.

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