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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Merriman's Prosecutors Dispute Claim of Brain Defect

Trial: Expert witness rebuts neuropsychologist. Deputy D.A. still maintains defendant who killed a young woman is 'evil' and deserves execution.

March 06, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County prosecutors are trying to discredit the testimony of two defense experts who told jurors last week that convicted killer Justin Merriman suffers from a brain defect.

Merriman, 28, is facing a possible death sentence after being found guilty of first-degree murder and related charges in connection with the 1992 slaying of college student Katrina Montgomery.

A jury determined that Merriman raped Montgomery, 20, then cut her throat to prevent her from reporting the sexual assault to police.

The penalty phase of his trial got underway last week. Defense attorneys contend Merriman suffers from psychological problems, possibly triggered by a congenital brain defect, and should be spared the death penalty.

But prosecutors argue there is no evidence to support that claim. They have described Merriman as "evil" and are pushing for execution.

On Monday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh launched his rebuttal case by calling a UCLA assistant professor to dispute the findings of neuropsychologist Jordan Witt, who testified for the defense.

Professor Ari Kalechstein told jurors that Witt's conclusion that Merriman suffers from a brain defect is based on flawed test data and an interview that may have been manipulated by the defendant.

Defense attorney Willard Wiksell accused Kalechstein of nit-picking Witt's findings.

On Wednesday, prosecutors plan to call another expert to dispute the results of a scan of Merriman's brain taken last summer. Court is not in session today.

An issue with a missing female juror delayed testimony for about an hour Monday morning. She was later excused from the case because of a family medical emergency.

Meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. held a closed-door hearing Monday afternoon to resolve a separate issue involving the same juror, who had apparently discussed the case with a Ventura County sheriff's deputy with whom she is acquainted.

Three jurors have been excused during the two-month trial. There is only one alternate juror remaining.

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