The case against the man charged with a number of the freeway shootings in Phoenix has fallen apart. After being arrested in September of last year, and spending seven months behind bars, the charges against Leslie Merritt, Jr. have been dismissed.
You’ll recall that there were a series of unsolved shootings on the Interstate 10 corridor last summer. The shootings had drivers nervous, and the pressure was certainly on the Department of Public Safety to make an arrest. The tally had risen to 11 shootings, and police were scrambling to get a handle on who might be responsible. Targets included a school bus (unoccupied at the time). Based upon what the DPS told everyone was ballistics evidence from tests done by the state crime lab, Merritt was arrested in September and charged with four of the 11 shootings.
Merritt, who denied the allegations from the outset, was facing 16 felony charges. But the evidence in the case was slim, to say the least. What the DPS said is that Merritt was “forensically linked” to the shootings. Their crime lab came to the conclusion that bullet fragments from some of the shootings were fired by a particular make of gun, and that recently, Merritt had sold that make of gun to a pawnshop. There were no witnesses, and apparently no other evidence at all linking Merritt to any of the shootings. Nevertheless, he was arrested and charged.
Rush to Judgment?
There was also no evidence placing Merritt at the scene of any of the shootings. In fact, police said the fourth shooting took place on August 30, and by that time Merritt’s gun already resided in the pawn shop. Interestingly, the reaction was not to change the police theory of who was responsible; rather, they changed the facts, asserting that the shooting could have occurred at a different, earlier time. Meanwhile, Merritt remained behind bars, in solitary confinement, for over 220 days.
We’re guessing that the DPS knew that its case against Merritt was weak, so to bolster their theory, they hired an independent ballistics expert to show conclusively that Merritt’s gun was the one that fired the bullets. The result was not what the state expected. The expert’s conclusion was that he was unable to conclude that the bullets were fired from Merritt’s gun.
After defense attorneys obtained the expert’s opinion, the judge in the case first reduced Merritt’s bail, then dismissed the case. The dismissal was “without prejudice,” meaning that charges could be refiled against Merritt down the road.
So what’s the upshot of all this. Well, we don’t know who is responsible for the shootings, but it does appear that prosecutors, desperate to make an arrest in the case, rushed to judgment. They ignored the fact that pressure does not justify ignoring evidence, or stretching a time line in order to fit a preconceived notion of criminal responsibility.
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