McStay Family’s Killer Sentenced To Death
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Photo by Will Lester / AP
A Southern California man was sentenced to death Tuesday for the 10-year-old killings of a family of four whose bodies were found buried in shallow graves in the California desert.
Charles “Chase” Merritt was convicted in June of killing his former business associate Joseph McStay, McStay's wife, Summer, and their 4- and 3-year-old sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr. Prosecutors say he bludgeoned them with a sledgehammer.
The family disappeared without a trace in February 2010. Their bodies were not found until 2013, when an off-road motorcyclist came across them in the Mojave Desert.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Smith upheld the jury's recommendation of death following a two-day sentencing hearing that included a flurry of last-minute motions from Merritt and his lawyer, who accused prosecutors of misconduct, Merritt's earlier attorneys of incompetence and, on Monday, tried to remove the judge himself from the case. All of the motions were denied.
In an emotional statement delivered after his sentencing, Merritt continued to maintain his innocence, lashing out at prosecutors and witnesses he said framed him and the judge he claimed allowed it to happen.
“I loved Joseph," he said. “He was a big part of my life and my family’s life. I would never have hurt him in any way. I would have never raised my hand for a woman or child. I did not do this thing."
The victims' family members, including McStay's mother, made equally emotional statements telling how the killings had scarred their lives.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, Smith let McStay's father, Patrick, deliver a brief but powerful statement.
“I hope you burn in hell, but I will pray for your family and your children, as they are to me all innocent victims," the white-haired McStay, his voice breaking, said as Merritt buried his head in his hands.
The judge then continued the hearing, where others will also have a chance to speak.
Shortly before Friday's proceedings began, Merritt's attorney, Rajan Maline, introduced a motion to have the guilty verdict thrown out, citing allegations of ineffective trial counsel and misconduct by prosecutors.
Two hours into Maline's argument, Merritt interrupted him, asking to speak privately. The judge then recessed for lunch and after everyone returned Merritt revealed he wanted to fire Maline. His request was rejected.
After listening to arguments from both sides, Smith spoke at length explaining why he was ruling there was neither ineffective counsel nor misconduct by prosecutors.
He then announced he would take up the matter of sentencing on Tuesday, but he allowed McStay's father to speak after learning he had to leave town the next day.
“Joey, Summer, Gianni and Joey Jr. did nothing to you,” the older man told Merritt. “They welcomed you into their lives and home. My son Joey did nothing but help you and your family.”
He added that his son even paid Merritt's bills twice when he was in jail so his family could keep a roof over their heads. He dismissed Merritt as a narcissist and a psychopath.
The four family members vanished from their home in northern San Diego County in 2010. Their disappearance puzzled investigators until 2013, when an off-road motorcyclist found skeletal remains in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, about 100 miles north of the McStay home.
In one grave, authorities unearthed a rusty 3-pound sledgehammer they said was used to kill the family.
Merritt was arrested the following year. Authorities said they believed Merritt killed the family as McStay was cutting him out of his business making and selling custom water fountains.
They said McStay told friends Merritt was doing shoddy work and pilfering money from him. Prosecutors eventually discovered that about the time the family vanished thousands of dollars in checks allegedly from McStay to Merritt had been written and cashed.
Investigators said they traced Merritt's cellphone to the area where the bodies were buried in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay's online bookkeeping account. Merritt also had referred to McStay in the past tense during an interview with investigators.
Maline said all that was circumstantial and that there was no hard proof Merritt committed the murders.
"From the very beginning, this case screamed doubt," he had told jurors. "This case is filled with unanswered questions."
On Friday he argued that cellphone records didn't put Merritt close to the burial site at the time prosecutors said he disposed of the bodies. The judge said that wasn't true, adding there was also substantial other evidence to convict Merritt.
California has not executed anyone since 2006. Voters approved a ballot measure to speed up executions in 2016. But last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on executions while he's in office.
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