"He didn’t just kill him – he murdered him’
Testimony began Wednesday in a hit-and-run trial in which a Breckenridge man stands accused of driving drunk and striking and killing a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer in October 2000.
Whether Christopher Merrick, who was 20 at the time of the accident, struck and killed officer Sean Nava after a night of drinking in Tijuana will not be up to the jury to decide, said Deputy District Attorney Paul Myers during opening statements Wednesday. Jurors will, however, be asked to determine if his actions amount to murder. Jury selection began Monday, and opening statements began Wednesday.
If Merrick is convicted of second-degree murder, he could spend 21 years to life in prison. He also faces charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and hit-and-run causing injuries. If the jury decides he is innocent of the murder charges, but guilty of the lesser charges, he could serve up to 16 years in prison.
He is being held in the Vista, Calif. jail on a $2 million bond.
According to CHP reports, Merrick and a friend, James Smith, were drinking at a bar called Club Excess in Tijuana, Mexico, until the early hours of Oct. 28. Originally, Smith was driving, but the two traded spots in the Toyota 4Runner after Smith became ill from drinking alcohol, Myers said. Witnesses said Merrick was tailgating another vehicle, then veered to another lane, where Nava was taking measurements from a car accident that occurred the previous night.
The woman Merrick was tailgating testified that she saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles ahead on the highway. She saw Nava just as Merrick passed her.
“I closed my eyes,” she said. “I realized what was going to happen.”
Nava was standing in the shoulder of the highway when he was struck, reports read. Nava, an 11-year veteran with CHP, was thrown into the air, landed on the windshield and fell to the pavement. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.
“Mr. Merrick plowed into officer Nava at 70 to 80 mph,” Myers said during opening statements Wednesday. “He hit officer Nava with such force that his bullet-proof vest left a fabric imprint on the shirt.”
Merrick fled the scene and was caught after witness Michael Kollins heard Merrick and Smith arguing in his neighborhood in nearby Carlsbad.
“He was distraught, holding his head in his hands,” Kollins was reported to have testified, adding that Merrick repeatedly said, “Oh, my god, we’ve hit someone.”
Defense attorney Rickard Santwier said there is no arguing Merrick struck and killed Nava. What’s at question, he said, was Merrick’s state of mind.
According to Santwier, the two men originally intended to stay in a hotel in Tijuana that night. They instead slept in their vehicle near the international border before Smith said he wanted to leave.
Merrick was negligent, Santwier said, but his driving record does not show an egregiously reckless driver.
Myers disagreed, citing Merrick’s driving record in the four years since he’d received his driver’s license. He said Merrick, who turns 22 Wednesday, has been involved in four fenderbenders, received seven traffic tickets and was given four written warnings about his driving. He also had completed a court-ordered traffic course four weeks before the October incident. His driving record alone, Myers said, shows his actions that morning were criminal.
Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wagner will determine how much the jury will hear about Merrick’s driving record. Among those are a June 2000 accident in which Merrick rear-ended a vehicle in Denver; Merrick said his foot slipped off the clutch. She also must weigh in on a case in which Merrick floored his car in reverse and struck another man’s car as they both tried to leave a parking lot.
She has already said jurors likely will get to hear a tape of court proceedings from earlier that year in which Merrick claims he usually tries to be very careful when driving.”
“Society did almost everything it could to tell Mr. Merrick not to let this happen,” Myers told the jury. He added that based on evidence they will hear in the trial, jurors will decide “that Merrick didn’t just kill Nava, he murdered him.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or email@example.com.
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