Scales of Justice

By Joe Nelson, The Sun
Posted: 01/30/15, 10:02 AM PST | Updated: 51 secs ago

SAN BERNARDINO >> Fearing he may die in custody before trial, Charles “Chase” Merritt, suspected of killing the McStay family in their Fallbrook home in 2010, was given permission Friday by a judge to represent himself.

Merritt, 57, of Homeland, suffers from congestive heart failure and believes that acting as his own attorney will facilitate the process of getting his case heard more quickly and the possibility of him reuniting with his family if he is vindicated, his attorney, Robert Ponce, told San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith Friday during a pretrial hearing.

“He’s convinced he has the intellectual capability to do it, and so do I,” Ponce told Smith.

He said Merritt told him earlier Friday of his desire to defend himself in the case.

After admonishing Merritt on the disadvantages of representing himself, especially in a multiple murder case in which prosecutors may seek the death penalty, Smith granted Merritt’s request on condition he obtain a doctor’s note saying he is healthy enough to defend himself.

Smith also said he would appoint Merritt an investigator and advisory counsel to work with him on his case.

Merritt told Smith that inmates are only allowed four hours a week to use the law library at the county jail in Rancho Cucamonga, and that he would need more time in the library to prepare his defense.

Smith told Merritt he would need to file a motion with the court requesting more access to the law library, and would also need to serve both the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department with the motion.

Smith scheduled a status conference for Feb. 20 and a preliminary hearing for April 7.

Merritt has pleaded not guilty. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder for the bludgeoning deaths of Joseph McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; and their two sons, Gianni, 4; and Joseph Jr., 3, inside their home on Feb. 4, 2010. Prosecutors allege Merritt, after killing the family, took their bodies to the Mojave Desert, near Victorville, and buried them in shallow graves.

Homicide investigators said they will not discuss the suspected motive for the killings.

Merritt also faces special circumstances allegations of multiple murders that make him eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors will announce whether they plan to seek capital punishment after the preliminary hearing.

The family’s skeletal remains were discovered north of Stoddard Wells Road, west of the 15 Freeway, by an off-road motorcyclist in November 2013, exactly one year before Merritt’s arrest.

Smith on Friday also denied a motion filed on behalf of 18 news organizations to unseal dozens of search warrants in the case. The request was made by the news organizations, including the Los Angeles News Group, after Merritt’s arrest.

Smith sided with law enforcement officials, saying that making the documents public before the preliminary hearing would “significantly impair” the ongoing homicide investigation.

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