Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Merritt
Jury says Merritt should be put to death for three of four murders of Fallbrook's McStay family
Last updated 7/3/2019 at 3:18pm
On Monday, June 24, a San Bernardino County jury of 12 people recommended a sentence of death for Charles "Chase" Merritt in counts 2, 3 and 4, but life in prison on count 1 exactly two weeks since they found him guilty of murdering the McStay family of Fallbrook in 2010.
The jury recommended Merritt be put to death for the murders of Summer McStay and her two young sons, but recommended life in prison for the murder of Joseph McStay. He will be formally sentenced on Sept. 27.
Merritt's head dropped as the decisions were read by the court clerk.
"This now finally does conclude your service in this case," Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith told the jurors. "I really do appreciate your dedication to this case."
It is almost certain that Merritt and his defense team will appeal the quadruple murder conviction.
The penalty phase in the trial of Charles "Ray" Merritt began on Tuesday, June 11, just a day after Merritt was found guilty.
"Those are the voices that you did not get to hear from," San Bernardino County Prosecutor Melissa Rodriguez told the jurors, showing them a video of the McStay boys during opening statements. "At the end of the evidence, in this case, the people believe that there is one penalty in this case that is appropriate - and that is the death penalty."
The defense team chose not to present an opening statement or call any witnesses.
The state first called Joseph McStay's mother, Susan Blake, then brother, Michael, then Summer McStay's brother, Kenneth Aranda via Skype from Hawaii, and her sister, Tracy Russell via Skype from Greece.
"When a family of four vanishes off the face of the earth, when a family of four is murdered, it tears a hole into the fabric of society," said San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes during closing arguments. "It tears a hole that must be mended so that the families and society can move forward knowing that there was some resolution to why they were brutally murdered.
"In the totality of the evidence you saw, justifies only one verdict and that is death. The death penalty is an appropriate sentence punishment for this defendant. The gravity of the offense so substantially outweighs any possible mitigation, any possible mercy you could show him, that the only true and just outcome is death."
Imes turned the floor over to Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty who attempted to tear down Merritt's defense team's closing arguments.
"Now, we don't get an opportunity for rebuttal," Daugherty said. "What you're likely to hear (from the defense) is a lot of discussion about lingering doubt. What you're likely to hear is, 'Hey, we agree, Joe is a great guy, nothing bad we can say about him. But you know what, each of you got it wrong.' They may not say that in those words, but that's what they're going to say.
"Each of you who sat through this trial, five months, give or take, of evidence. Who deliberated, considered, compared and contrasted that evidence, and reached a decision beyond a reasonable doubt that he murdered four people. Make no mistake about it, no matter what language is used, they're saying you got it wrong. That's what that lingering doubt is.
"Each of you has done your job and it's offensive the attention you've paid in this case. What you've invested in this case, the time you've spent back there deliberating and deciding this case.
"That's what's really being said - 'You got it wrong. What if you got it wrong?' - each you know beyond a reasonable doubt, that's the murderer."
During closing arguments, that's exactly what defense attorney Rajan Maline presented to the jurors by appealing to the possibility of any jurors holding onto any lingering doubts.
Maline sympathized with the amount of time and effort the jurors put into the trial.
"But we can disagree," he said. "It doesn't mean I don't respect you, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate you, but we can disagree.
"And because we can disagree, there is this concept called lingering doubt. But lingering doubt isn't just there to say you got it wrong, or you are mistaken. Lingering doubt is a concept that is used because of the nature of trials and the nature of deliberations."
Maline said that deliberations in a trial are a collaborative effort.
"Whenever there's a collaborative effort, some people may be more assertive, and some people may not be. Some people may have a personality that says 'I'm afraid to speak out or I may not be as smart as them. Or they sure as heck know what they're talking about, I don't want to say anything.' So people sometimes in the collaborative effort remain quiet, but they sometimes have their own opinion."
Maline went on to attempt to reinforce the defense's opinion that the prosecution presented a very weak case and told the jury that they will be able to go back and watch the trial on the Law and Crime Network, which broadcasted nearly all of the trial.
"You're going to see that these prosecutors sold you a bill of goods," Maline said. "You're going to see that this family is not getting justice."
After instructions from Judge Smith, the jury then went into deliberations, two days and four and an half hours later, the jury returned with a decision.
Merritt was found guilty of bludgeoning to death Joseph and Summer McStay and the couple's young sons - 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. - in 2010 and burying their bodies in a San Bernardino desert.
The family's remains were found buried in shallow graves by a motorcyclist three years later and Merritt was arrested by San Bernardino County Sheriff's Detectives a year later in 2014.
After he was arrested, Merritt said through his attorney that he had a heart condition and wanted his trial to be fast-tracked. The trial has been beleaguered by a series of delays and motions ever since.
The trial finally began on Jan. 7, 2019.
Prosecutors built their case around the theory that greed was the basis for why Merritt subsequently killed the Fallbrook family, who lived in the Lake Rancho Viejo housing development east of Interstate 15 in Fallbrook, was last seen alive Feb. 4, 2010.
Prior to the family going missing, Merritt was a subcontractor for McStay and the two were good friends by most accounts. Merritt designed and built custom fountains for Joseph McStay's business, Earth Inspired Products, but, according to prosecutors, he was in debt to the tune of more than $40,000 to McStay at the time of the murders.
Prosecutors said Merritt feared being cut out of the business or having charges filed against him by McStay.
Detectives testified that Merritt deposited checks worth thousands of dollars from McStay after the family went missing, using QuickBooks and even called QuickBooks from his cell phone, identifying himself as Joseph McStay and asking to transfer the money in the account.
Merritt's defense attorneys argued that investigators zeroed in on Merritt early on the case and never looked at anyone else. During the trial, the defense team repeatedly attempted to point the finger at another McStay business associate, Dan Kavanaugh, who they said was overlooked by investigators.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at [email protected]