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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Lawyer Admits to Jury Merriman Is Guilty of 2nd-Degree Murder

February 09, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Skinhead gang member Justin Merriman killed a 20-year-old 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 presented at trial proves Merriman raped and intentionally slit the throat of Santa Monica College student Katrina Montgomery after she left an Oxnard party in November 1992.

It was a cold, calculated killing intended to prevent Montgomery from reporting a 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 forced Nicassio and Bush to get rid of the murder weapons and Montgomery's body, which they said they buried near Sylmar. Montgomery's blood-stained 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 the jury Thursday. "To say otherwise is illogical."

After a monthlong trial, lawyers completed two days of closing arguments in Ventura County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon, and the jury was escorted to a conference room at 3:45 p.m. to begin deliberations.

Merriman, who has a long criminal history of drug use and assault, faces 20 criminal counts in connection with the killing. In addition to murder, he is charged with raping two women in the mid-1990s, resisting arrest during a standoff with police in 1998 and conspiring to intimidate witnesses.

In his closing argument Thursday, Wiksell conceded that his client is guilty of the conspiracy and resisting arrest charges.

Prosecutors proved the defendant ran from police and barricaded himself in a house on Jan. 30, 1998, after officers tried to stop him for riding a bicycle without a rear reflector in west Ventura, Wiksell said.

And they proved the defendant wrote letters to fellow gang members in early 1999 as part of a campaign to silence witnesses who testified during grand jury hearings that led to his indictment, the lawyer said.

"Have the people proved a conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt? Yeah," Wiksell said. "It's there."

But Wiksell contested charges that his client sexually assaulted two women in 1994 and 1995, describing the alleged victims as drug-using "party girls" who hung around the defendant's Ventura skinhead gang. He said the sex was consensual and that the women only claimed to have been raped after talking to investigators.

Wiksell further suggested prosecutors added the rape charges to bolster their murder case, hoping jurors would believe that if Merriman raped two other women he probably raped Montgomery too.

Turning to the murder charge, Wiksell said that how and why Montgomery was killed remain a mystery, since her body has never been found and witness accounts are unreliable.

But he suggested Merriman and Montgomery, who had known each other for years, had consensual sex on Nov. 28, 1992, and that she was later killed during a sudden attack.

Wiksell said his client, an "immature young man" who had been drinking and using drugs during the party, could not have formed the intent to kill.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that this was anything but an unconsidered, rash impulse, and if it is a rash impulse, it is not premeditated murder," Wiksell said.

Wiksell's argument marked a sharp 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 ample 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.

"It's a case of second-degree murder, and Bush and Nicassio are up to their ears in it," he said.

In his rebuttal, Bamieh, who presented a daylong closing argument Wednesday, told jurors Merriman is a rapist and a murderer who should be found guilty.

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."

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