Conviction could land Breck man in prison for 16 years
SAN DIEGO – Christopher Paul Merrick of Breckenridge was found guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter Thursday in the Oct. 28, 2000, death of a California Highway Patrol officer in San Diego County.
The decision came after almost three days of deliberation. The 12-person jury decided against the more serious charge of second-degree murder requested by the prosecution. Merrick, 22, will be sentenced June 21; he faces up to 16 years in prison.
The conviction comes after almost three weeks of testimony in which it was determined Merrick and a friend, James Smith, were drinking all night in a bar in Tijuana, Mexico, according to reports in the San Diego Tribune.
Merrick was driving north on Interstate 5, a primary thoroughfare between San Diego and Los Angeles, and tailgated a woman for about five miles before he veered into another lane, striking highway patrol officer Sean Nava. Nava, an 11-year veteran on the force, was standing on the shoulder of the highway investigating an accident that had taken place the night before when Merrick struck him at a speed of at least 80 mph.
According to testimony during the trial, Nava was hit so hard, his bullet-proof vest left marks on his chest.
Smith, who was sleeping, said he woke up after hearing a “boom” and was covered with broken windshield glass. Merrick then drove to a neighborhood in nearby Carlsbad, where the two men were overheard discussing the collision and damage to the vehicle.
The prosecution urged jurors to convict Merrick of second-degree murder, saying he knew drinking and driving could result in the death of someone else. The defense said his actions could be considered negligent, but not intentional.
Attorneys also debated whether evidence regarding Merrick’s driving history could be presented during the trial. In his four years of driving experience prior to the accident, Merrick had received seven traffic tickets for speeding, tailgating and running a red light. Merrick also had a least one charge against him for underage possession of alcohol.
Merrick faced charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence and hit and run. If he had been convicted on the more serious charges, he could have faced up to 21 years in prison.
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