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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Jury Urges Death for Merriman

Trial: The skinhead gang member who raped and killed a college student in 1992 is to be sentenced in May. Victim's parents say verdict brings them no joy.

March 13, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County jury on Monday recommended the death penalty for a 28-year-old skinhead gang member who raped and killed Santa Monica College student Katrina Montgomery, ending a murder case that took years to solve.

Justin Merriman, who defiantly took the stand last week to claim his innocence, sat stone-faced as jurors filed into court after about eight hours of deliberations.

The courtroom--so overflowing with observers that some of the victim's relatives sat on each other's laps--fell silent as the decision was announced by Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr.

From their seats, Montgomery's parents quietly embraced. Merriman, his arms crossed in front of him, rocked in his chair.

Just days earlier, he insisted on testifying and stunned the courtroom by giving a stiff-armed Nazi salute as he took the oath. He denied killing Montgomery in November 1992, but refused to answer questions posed by the prosecutor.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2001 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Death row--A chart accompanying a story Tuesday about the verdict in the Justin Merriman murder case contained inaccurate information. There are 11 convicted murderers from Ventura County currently on death row. In addition, a photograph purporting to show convicted local murderer Larry David Davis was actually a picture of a different convict with the same name. The Larry David Davis in the photo is a convicted New York murderer serving a sentence of 25 years to life.

After the verdict was read, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury shook hands with Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh and investigator Mark Volpei. They spent the last four years trying to determine what happened to Montgomery, whose body has never been found.

"This is one case where justice delayed was not justice denied," Bradbury said outside the courtroom. "If this doesn't warrant the death penalty, no case does."

Last month, Merriman was found guilty of murder, conspiracy, witness intimidation and the rapes of two other women.

During a 2 1/2-month trial, prosecutors portrayed him as a violent but cowardly man who abused women and used a network of white power gang members to protect himself from prosecution.

Defense attorneys argued that their client suffers from psychological problems and should be spared a death sentence.

But jurors didn't see it that way.

*

A male juror, who asked not to be identified, spoke briefly about the decision as he left the courthouse.

"I can very simply tell you we did the right thing," he said. "We followed the court's instructions and we followed the law."

Jurors began deliberations Friday and returned with a verdict before noon Monday. The reading of the verdict was delayed until about 1:30 p.m. to allow the victim's relatives, who live in Los Angeles, to get to court.

Later, jurors met privately with the relatives in a courthouse conference room.

Montgomery's parents told reporters the verdict brought them no joy.

"His death will not bring our daughter back, but we believe the sentence is fair and appropriate," said her father, Mike Montgomery.

He praised investigators for sticking with the case for so many years. "Without their efforts, we would not have had the closure we have today."

The verdict brought an end to a murder case that had stumped investigators for years.

Montgomery, a 20-year-old student who lived with her parents in Los Angeles, disappeared in the early hours of Nov. 28, 1992, after leaving a party in Oxnard. Later that day, her bloodstained pickup truck was found abandoned in Angeles National Forest near Sylmar.

For years, the investigation was hamstrung by reluctant witnesses associated with the skinhead gang.

Then a series of breaks led authorities to Merriman, a parolee who knew Montgomery while she was growing up in Ventura. After a yearlong probe involving police informants, he was indicted on murder charges in January 1999.

During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence to show Merriman wanted a sexual relationship with Montgomery.

When she rejected him after the party, witnesses said, he raped her, stabbed her in the neck, beat her with a wrench and then slit her throat. Two San Fernando Valley skinheads--Larry Nicassio and Ryan Bush--testified they saw the attack while spending the night at Merriman's home, but were too scared to intervene.

In closing arguments of the trial, defense attorneys conceded Merriman killed Montgomery but insisted it was a rash, unplanned act.

Prosecutors argued there was clear evidence of premeditation, citing Nicassio's testimony that Merriman killed Montgomery because he feared she would "rat" on him to authorities.

In late February, the jury found Merriman guilty on all but one count, a rape charge involving a separate female victim, which prosecutors conceded they had not proved.

*

During the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence of three dozen violent acts committed by Merriman since he was a teen. Prosecutors called Merriman evil and told jurors he should be executed.

But defense attorneys said their client should be spared the death penalty because he suffers from severe psychological problems and a brain defect.

A psychologist testified that in 1989 he diagnosed Merriman as sociopathic and warned that without treatment the 17-year-old posed a violent threat to society, because he operated on pure impulse. Defense lawyers argued that Merriman never got the treatment he needed.

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