Skinhead gang member Justin Merriman killed a Santa Monica College student, but he should not be found guilty of first-degree murder because it was a rash, unplanned act, his lawyer told a jury in closing arguments Thursday.
With his 28-year-old client facing a possible death sentence, attorney Willard Wiksell urged jurors to consider convicting Merriman of a lesser crime.
"He is guilty of second-degree murder," Wiksell said.
But Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh told jurors that evidence proves Merriman raped and intentionally slit the throat of 20-year-old Katrina Montgomery after she left an Oxnard party in November 1992.
It was a calculated killing intended to prevent Montgomery from reporting the sexual assault to police, Bamieh told the jury. He cited testimony from two Sylmar gang members who said they saw the defendant rape Montgomery.
Larry Nicassio and Ryan Bush told jurors Merriman stabbed Montgomery in the neck, and, as she begged for her life, beat her with a pipe wrench. They testified Merriman told them he feared she was going to "rat" on him.
Later, Merriman ordered Nicassio and Bush to get rid of the weapons and Montgomery's body, which they said they buried near Sylmar. Montgomery's bloodstained pickup truck was found abandoned in Angeles National Forest but her remains have never been found.
"This is a classic premeditated and deliberate murder," Bamieh said. "To say otherwise is illogical."
After a monthlong trial, lawyers completed two days of closing arguments in Ventura County Superior Court on Thursday, and the jury began deliberations.
Wiksell has said that how and why Montgomery was killed remain a mystery, because her body has not been found and witness accounts are unreliable.
But he suggested that Merriman and Montgomery, who had known each other for years, had consensual sex Nov. 28, 1992, and that she was later killed during a sudden attack.
Wiksell said his client had been drinking and using drugs during the party and could not have formed the intent to kill.
Wiksell's argument marked a turnaround from his suggestion in opening statements that Nicassio and Bush probably killed her. Still, Wiksell told jurors their testimony should not be trusted.
The cousins, gang members who were once suspects in the case, had time to get their stories straight and "cried on cue" when questioned about the killing, Wiksell said.
He pointed out that after the killing, the two men admittedly concealed evidence, stole money from Montgomery's purse and lied to police. It was not until Nicassio cut a deal to avoid murder charges that they described what occurred in the Merriman house, Wiksell said.
In his rebuttal, Bamieh, who presented a daylong closing argument Wednesday, told jurors Merriman is a rapist and a murderer.
Merriman was running from the law and trying to hide his involvement in Montgomery's killing three years ago--that is why he avoided arrest in 1998 and why he tried to intimidate witnesses a year later, the prosecutor said.
"From the very beginning, he has been running," Bamieh said. "That chase has now ended."