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Verdict Is Death for Man Who Raped, Killed Student in '92

Crime: The Ventura skinhead gang member, convicted after years of investigation, had flashed a Nazi salute in court.

March 13, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — A Ventura County jury returned a death verdict Monday against a 28-year-old skinhead gang member who raped and killed Santa Monica College student Katrina Montgomery. The decision ended 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 that some of the victim's relatives sat on one another's laps, fell silent as the jury's verdict was announced by Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr.

In their seats, Montgomery's parents quietly embraced. Merriman, his arms crossed, rocked back and forth.

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

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

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. On Monday, defense lawyer Willard Wiksell said he was disappointed with the jury's decision.

"It is very difficult to hear those words," he said.

Later, jurors met privately with relatives of the slain college student in a courthouse conference room.

A male juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the meeting as emotional.

"Of course, you see these people in court day after day," he said.

He spoke only briefly about the jury's verdict in favor of the death penalty, saying: "I can very simply tell you we did the right thing. We followed the court's instruction and we followed the law."

Merriman's sister, Ember Wyman, fought back tears as she left the courtroom. "This is very difficult," she said. " . . . But I love him. I love my brother."

Mike and Katy Montgomery thanked the prosecution team for finally finding their daughter's killer.

"We are just thankful that it is over," Katy Montgomery said.

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

Katrina Montgomery, a student who lived with her parents in Los Angeles, disappeared early on Nov. 28, 1992, after leaving a party in Oxnard. Later that day, her bloodstained pickup truck was found abandoned in the Angeles National Forest near Sylmar. Her body has never been found.

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

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

*

Times staff writers Fred Alvarez and Anna Gorman contributed to this story.

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