Headline: Murder or manslaughter? | SummitDaily.com

Headline: Murder or manslaughter?

Jane Stebbins

SAN DIEGO – A jury of 12 spent the past two days debating the fate of a Breckenridge man charged in an October 2000 fatal hit-and-run accident in San Diego County.

The jury has the option of finding Christopher Merrick not guilty or guilty of second-degree murder or vehicular manslaughter in the death of Sean Nava, an 11-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol.

Closing arguments in the trial were held Monday, with prosecutors saying Merrick chose to drink all night in a Tijuana, Mexico bar, then drive home. Merrick, who has been held in the Vista, Calif. jail on a $2 million bond since Oct. 28, 2000, allegedly struck and killed Nava, who was investigating another accident along Interstate 5 that morning when he was struck by Merrick’s Toyota 4Runner. Merrick and his passenger, James Smith, continued on, eventually stopping in a nearby neighborhood where they assessed the damage to the car.

Witnesses testified in the three-week trial that Merrick tailgated a woman for five miles at speeds in excess of 70 mph. Another witness said he heard Merrick and Smith arguing in the street, saying, “Oh my God; we hit someone!” Smith was then reported to have said that considering the damage to the vehicle, they must have struck an object, not a person.

“He was treating this freeway as if it was his own personal racetrack,” said prosecutor Paul Myers. “This was not an accident. This was a deliberate decision. Ask yourselves, “Did he know it was dangerous to human life?’ And did he do it anyway?”

According to investigators, Merrick’s Toyota 4Runner suffered a smashed windshield, twisted fender and crumpled hood. The interstate – a major corridor between San Diego and Los Angeles – was closed for more than eight hours after the accident.

Defense attorney Richard Hutton said Tuesday that while Merrick was responsible for Nava’s death, his actions constituted negligence. Hutton said Merrick, who turned 22 April 24, shouldn’t be convicted of anything more than vehicular homicide.

“If Mr. Nava hadn’t been on the shoulder, Mr Merrick would have been issued a couple of traffic tickets,” Hutton said.

He also said the argument that Merrick should have expected his driving to result in someone’s death holds no merit.

Merrick pleaded not guilty to felony charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and hit-and-run.

Investigators said Merrick had a blood-alcohol content higher than .08, the minimum legal standard at which someone is considered intoxicated in California. The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18 and 21 in California; Merrick was 20 at the time of the incident.

Attorneys also debated with Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wagner about how much of Merrick’s driving record should be permitted as evidence. Merrick had been cited in Colorado on four fenderbenders, received seven traffic tickets and four written warnings about his driving. He also completed a court-ordered traffic course four weeks before the October incident.

If convicted of murder, Merrick faces 21 years in prison. If convicted of manslaughter, he faces up to 16 years.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.

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