For many, there always was something fishy about the case against Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., the 21-year-old landscaper previously accused of being the “I-10 Freeway Shooter.”
Whether it was the way Governor Doug Ducey tweeted “We got him,” or the seemingly desperate way the Arizona Department of Public Safety adjusted its timeline after pawnshop records revealed the gun Merritt allegedly used wasn’t in his possession on a key date, many in the media and public pointed out that something just didn’t add up.
Yet despite this skepticism, the DPS and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office insisted they had the right guy when they arrested Merritt on September 18 because they said they had the ballistics evidence to link him to at least four of the 11 highway shootings that had been terrorizing metro Phoenix for weeks.
And then that evidence started to crumble.
So much so, in fact, that Judge Warren Granville reduced Merritt’s bail to $0 late last week and the state dropped all 15 criminal charges a few days later. But even though Merritt’s name effectively has been cleared and he’s a free man, there still are many unanswered questions about the case: What exactly the ballistics evidence was and why it fell apart so quickly, for instance.
These facts remain unclear because like in many criminal trials, the state asked the court to seal important legal documents so as not to influence the opinions of a future jury. But now that the case has been dismissed and the gag orders previously placed on all legal parties and witnesses have been lifted, Merritt’s defense attorneys, Jason Lamm and Ulises Ferragut, are pushing the court to unseal all documents. In a motion that's somehow both poetic and damning, Lamm and Ferragut cite openness and transparency as “cornerstones of the American justice system,” and write, “The veil of secrecy behind which the State has hidden must be pierced by this court.” At the time of Merritt’s arrest, “the Court had rightful concern” that this information remain secret so as not to taint the jury or influence any of the witnesses, they say, “but those concerns are now moot.
"If the proceedings are unsealed the public will understand what the evidence was against Leslie Merritt, and, more importantly, what it wasn't [and] it'll show the public why the case unraveled in the rapid fashion that it did,” Lamm, who did not return New Times’ request for comment, told AZFamily.com.
What’s more, he and Ferragut write in their motion, this “veil of secrecy must be pierced” so as to “prohibit the prosecution from disingenuously infecting the public record with false statements about the demise of its case. “Just hours after the State filed its motion to dismiss, Jerry Cobb, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office [stated:] ‘These developments have nothing to do with what the defense uncovered but have everything to do with what evidence the prosecutors uncovered,’” the motion states, but “nothing could be further from the truth.”
In other words, the state is saying it dropped the case because new evidence it uncovered made the case difficult to prosecute as is, not because Merritt isn’t the right guy —– and Merritt’s attorneys are accusing the state of purposefully misleading the public.
“Allowing MCAO’s statements to stand would constitute a tacit endorsement of the state’s misleading the public with utter impunity,” they write.
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When asked whether the state planned to challenge the defense’s motion, Cobb writes in an e-mail that the County Attorney's Office “responds to motions in court, not in the media.”
The state has until May 6 to re-file charges against Merritt, though there is no indication it will do so.
Merritt, whose name was suddenly plastered all over the Internet last summer when he was arrested, has consistently maintained his innocence and said he has an alibi — court documents show the defense had multiple witnesses ready to testify on his behalf.
“There is no legal or factual rationale whatsoever for the pleadings in question to remain under seal; particularly as they will further prove that the defendant is NOT the I-10 Freeway Shooter,” the defense writes.
And it’s for these reasons, the that “the court’s granting of the instant motion [to unseal documents] is consistent with [the] beliefs of our Founding Fathers and would promote a sense of justice in its purest form.”