Sentencing delayed for man convicted of killing family

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FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2014, file photo, Charles "Chase" Merritt sits in court during his pre-preliminary hearing in Victorville Court in Victorville, Calif. Merritt was convicted in June 2019 of the murders of his former business associate Joseph McStay, McStay's wife Summer, and their 4- and 3-year-old sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr. He will learn Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 whether he will face the death penalty. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via AP, File)

Sentencing was delayed Friday for a man convicted of killing a family of four and burying their bodies in the California desert after the defendant made a lengthy, unsuccessful bid to fire his attorney and have his conviction thrown out.

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith was scheduled to sentence Charles “Chase” Merritt to either death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

Merritt was convicted in June of the murders of his former business associate Joseph McStay, McStay's wife, Summer, and their 4- and 3-year-old sons, Gianni and Joseph Jr. Prosecutors say he bludgeoned them with a sledgehammer.

But after Friday's hearing stretched on for more than seven hours, Smith continued sentencing until Tuesday. Before he did, however, he let McStay's father, Patrick, deliver a brief but powerful statement.

“Ï hope you burn in hell, but I will pray for your family and your children, as they are to me all innocent victims," the white-haired McStay, his voice breaking, said as Merritt buried his head in his hands.

The judge then continued the hearing, where others will also have a chance to speak.

Shortly before Friday's proceedings began, Merritt's attorney, Rajan Maline, introduced a motion to have the guilty verdict thrown out, citing allegations of ineffective trial counsel and misconduct by prosecutors.

Two hours into Maline's argument, Merritt interrupted him, asking to speak privately. The judge then recessed for lunch and after everyone returned Merritt revealed he wanted to fire Maline. His request was rejected.

After listening to arguments from both sides, Smith spoke at length explaining why he was ruling there was neither ineffective counsel nor misconduct by prosecutors.

He then announced he would take up the matter of sentencing on Tuesday, but he allowed McStay's father to speak after learning he had to leave town the next day.

“Joey, Summer, Gianni and Joey Jr did nothing to you,” the older man told Merritt. “They welcomed you into their lives and home. My son Joey did nothing but help you and your family.”

He added that his son even paid Merritt's bills twice when he was in jail so his family could keep a roof over their heads. He dismissed Merritt as a narcissist and a psychopath.

The four family members vanished from their home in northern San Diego County in 2010. Their disappearance puzzled investigators until 2013, when an off-road motorcyclist found skeletal remains in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the McStay home.

In one grave, authorities unearthed a rusty 3-pound (1.36-kilogram) sledgehammer they said was used to kill the family.

Merritt was arrested the following year. Authorities said they believed Merritt killed the family as McStay was cutting him out of his business making and selling custom water fountains.

They said McStay told friends Merritt was doing shoddy work and pilfering money from him. Prosecutors eventually discovered that about the time the family vanished thousands of dollars in checks allegedly from McStay to Merritt had been written and cashed.

Investigators said they traced Merritt's cellphone to the area where the bodies were buried in the days after the family disappeared and to a call seeking to close McStay's online bookkeeping account. Merritt also had referred to McStay in the past tense during an interview with investigators.

Maline said all that was circumstantial and that there was no hard proof Merritt committed the murders.

"From the very beginning, this case screamed doubt," he had told jurors. "This case is filled with unanswered questions."

On Friday he argued that cellphone records didn't put Merritt close to the burial site at the time prosecutors said he disposed of the bodies. The judge said that wasn't true, adding there was also substantial other evidence to convict Merritt.

California has not executed anyone since 2006. Voters approved a ballot measure to speed up executions in 2016. But last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on executions while he's in office.


Associated Press Writer Amy Taxin contributed to this story.