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Thomas Merrill

Other California Murder Exonerations with Misconduct
On March 14, 1989, Bill King, the owner of a Newport Beach, California coin shop was shot four times during a robbery. King’s 38-year-old wife, Renee, and King’s 45-year-old friend, Clyde Oatts, were fatally shot.

In July 1989, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Wick was arrested in Reno, Nevada and charged with the crime. At the time of the crime, Wick was living on a U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station in nearby Tustin, California. Police said Wick acted alone and came to the coin shop ostensibly to pick up about $45,000 in coins he had ordered previously under a phony name.

Police said the gun used in the crime as well as coins from the store were found in Wick’s car. His fingerprints were found on the counter in the store. A coin shop receipt bore the phony name, but had the phone number of his Marine barracks. Wick confessed and said he acted alone.

More than a year later, in November 1990, 26-year-old Thomas Merrill, also a Marine Lance Corporal and Wick’s former bunkmate at the Air Station, was arrested and charged with participating in the crime with Wick. Police said Merrill rented a storage locker off the Marine base three weeks before the crime and admitted moving Wick’s guns into it after Wick was questioned by police. Merrill denied being involved in the crime or knowing Wick was involved. By then, another Marine had come forward and said Wick told him he committed the crime with a friend who was older and had studied martial arts. Merrill was four years older than Wick and had studied judo and aikido.

Wick and Merrill went on trial together in Orange County Superior Court in June 1991. King, the store’s owner, who survived four gunshots including one bullet to his head, testified that there was only one gunman involved in the crime and said that was Wick. King said Merrill was not involved. However, the prosecution presented evidence that after the crime, King said, “Tom shot me” and argued that referred to Merrill and that because of the trauma, King couldn’t remember Merrill was there.

The prosecution portrayed Merrill as the gunman who shot King, King’s wife and Oatts, who was a customer in the store. Wick’s lawyer contended that Wick tried to stop the shooting and even picked up a shotgun belonging to King and ordered Merrill to halt the gunfire. The defense contended that Wick never mentioned Merrill in his statement to police because he was terrified of Merrill.

One witness, Gregory Zumbrunn testified that he saw a man in the store who resembled Wick and a second man resembling Merrill coming out of the store, although he was not able to pick Merrill out of a lineup. Another witness, Finn Olsen, said he saw two people in the parking lot behind the coin shop. Olsen picked Merrill’s photo out of a police photographic lineup, saying Merrill resembled one of the men he saw in the parking lot.

Merrill testified and denied that he was involved, although he was unable to provide an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the crime. Wick did not testify.

On July 1, 1991, Wick and Merrill were convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, robbery, burglary and illegal use of a weapon. Merrill was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Wick was sentenced to 37 years to life in prison.

In June 1993, Merrill’s conviction was vacated and he was granted a new trial. The judge ruled that the prosecution failed to disclose that Zumbrunn first told police that he only saw one man in the store and that he resembled Wick. The prosecution also had failed to disclose that Olsen did not pick Merrill out of a physical lineup and that Olsen repeatedly told police and the prosecution that Merrill was not one of the two men he saw. The judge also ruled that Merrill’s trial lawyer had failed to adequately investigate the case and failed to interview witnesses.

Merrill went on a trial a second time in March 1995 and at this trial, Wick testified for the prosecution and said that Merrill was the mastermind of the crime and did the shooting. A mistrial was declared on May 17, 1995 after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Merrill went on trial a third time in the fall of 1995. On October 13, 1995, a jury acquitted Merrill and he was released. Among those who were present to congratulate Merrill upon his release was William King, the coin shop owner, who had always maintained that Wick acted alone.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 3/26/2014
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1989
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No