Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Gilbert Merritt III

Other Virginia Exonerations
On June 4, 2000, police in Norfolk, Virginia, responded to a shooting outside a Tinee Giant convenience store. Vincent Burdett, who was 38 years old, had been shot four times, including a fatal wound to his chest.

The initial investigation did not turn up any suspects. The shooting did not appear to be related to a robbery, as Burdett had nearly $800 in cash in his pockets.

Several people told police that a Black man approached Burdett outside the store. Their descriptions were vague; one said he was between 5’7” and 5’ 11’ and weighed around 150 pounds. None of these witnesses said they saw the actual shooting.

More than seven months later, on January 31, 2001, Lisa Fuller met with Detective Robert Glenn Ford. Fuller would later testify that she told Ford that her friend, Gilbert Merritt III, confessed to her on the night of the shooting that he shot Burdett in retaliation for an earlier shooting on June 4 that seriously injured Merritt’s half-brother, Eric Amlet.

Merritt, who was 22 years old, was arrested February 5, 2001, and charged with first-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon.

Merritt’s trial in Norfolk City Circuit Court began on November 1, 2001. The murder weapon was never recovered and there was no forensic or physical evidence connecting Merritt to the crime.

Fuller was the state’s principal witness. She testified that she had gone to the hospital after hearing in person from Merritt’s mother that Amlet had been shot. At the hospital, she ran into Merritt and two friends of his—Marlon Reed and “Lil Rob.” She said that Merritt told her a drug dealer known as “Bootney” had shot Amlet, and that Bootney’s brother and another man might have been involved. Fuller said that Merritt described the car used in the shooting as a Chrysler or Dodge Intrepid that was a “funny blue or green color.”

Fuller testified that she left the hospital at about 9:30 p.m. on June 4. After she got home, Merritt called and asked Fuller to come get him at his mother’s apartment. Fuller said that when she arrived at the apartment, Merritt told her that “he had just shot someone.” Merritt’s sister, Gwen Merritt, was also at the apartment at the time, she said.

Fuller said that Merritt described the shooting in detail. He told her how he, Reed, and Lil Rob had gone out in Reed’s van to search for the funny-colored car before spotting it at the Tinee Giant. She said Merritt told her that he believed the victim to be the driver of the car used in the shooting of his brother. She said Merritt said he shot the man with a .45 caliber automatic and that he had been wearing a T-shirt over his head and dark-colored clothing. (This was consistent with some witness descriptions of the gunman’s clothing and shell casings found at the crime scene.) According to Fuller, Merritt said he ran to the van after the shooting and Reed, accompanied by Lil Rob, drove Merritt back to his mother’s apartment. Neither man was charged as an accessory.

Fuller said that Merritt did not tell her what he did with the weapon.

Fuller also testified about why she waited so long to contact the police. She said that she had been charged in July 2000 with several drug crimes. That put her in violation of probation on earlier convictions, where she had received a six-year suspended sentence. She said she went to the police for “selfish reasons.”

Fuller testified she met with Ford after another officer vouched for his credibility. She said she asked Ford for his assistance on the new charges, and he told her he couldn’t help. Fuller said it was only after another detective told her that Burdett had a young son that she mentioned Merritt’s involvement.

Fuller testified that she did not receive any deal from the state in exchange for her testimony. The July drug charges had been resolved in November 2001, with a sentence of no more than two years in prison to be finalized after Merritt’s trial.

Fuller said that arrangement was not linked to her testimony, but Merritt’s attorney asked her why Ford had been subpoenaed to her probation and sentencing hearings, which had been continued until after the trial. Fuller said, “You have to ask my lawyers.”

Fuller’s attorney, Cullen Gibson, testified that she issued subpoenas for Ford to be present at Fuller’s hearings so that Ford could, if needed, relate Fuller’s cooperation to the judge. But Gibson also testified that there was no requirement for Fuller to testify against Merritt to receive a reduced sentence.

Gibson said she had first discussed the two-year cap with prosecutors in November 2000, and the state’s agreement to that offer had been made on January 25, 2001, a few days before Fuller said she first met with Ford.

Ford testified that he first met with Fuller on January 31, 2001. He said he did not provide her with any information about the crime and gave her no guarantees about assistance in exchange for her cooperation.

Ford also testified that he questioned Merritt about the murder after Merritt was arrested. He said that Merritt denied any involvement and asked to be left alone in the interrogation room. Ford said he returned about 10 minutes later and showed Merritt a photo of Burdett. He said Merritt “put his fists together and put his head down and just banged on the table.” Later, Ford said, Merritt began crying and asked Ford about the different degrees of murder and said that he wanted to tell the truth but didn’t want to spend a lot of time in jail.

Ford said he did not ask Merritt any questions that would have corroborated Fuller’s account. During cross-examination, Ford said the interview was not recorded and that he had destroyed his notes, in part because Merritt never actually gave a statement.

Merritt did not testify, but several family members testified that he was at the hospital with his brother at the time of Burdett’s murder. (Ford also happened to be moonlighting as a security guard at the hospital that night.)

Merritt’s mother, Patricia Short, testified that she had been on a delayed honeymoon with her husband in Williamsburg when she learned about the shooting. She said she quickly returned to Norfolk and went to the hospital. Short said she left with Merritt at 11 p.m. on June 4. She also testified that Fuller was not at the hospital.

Other family members testified similarly about Merritt’s whereabouts. Merritt’s uncle testified that Merritt was still at the hospital when he left. The uncle said he knew it was after 10 p.m. because he didn’t have to pay for parking. The hospital was on the other side of Norfolk, eight miles and at least 20 minutes away from the Tinee Giant near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

A woman named Jazman Lopez also testified for the defense. She said that just before the shooting, she saw a burgundy vehicle and a blue vehicle parked at the gas pumps outside the convenience store. She saw a drug dealer named “Randy” get out of the burgundy vehicle and a man she didn’t recognize get out of the blue vehicle. Later, Lopez said, she saw Randy approach a man coming out of the store. She said Randy said something like, “I told you I’d catch up to you.”

She said she heard shots and then saw the man lying on the ground. She also saw the man from the blue vehicle run away. He was wearing a white T-shirt and dark cut-off pants.

Ford later testified as a rebuttal witness. He discounted Lopez’s testimony, saying that she had provided police with an incorrect date of birth and address. He also said that he had spoken with other investigators about Lopez, who had given police statements in unrelated homicides. “Everything she provided so far has been false,” he said.

On November 5, 2001, the jury convicted Merritt of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.

Merritt’s initial appeals, both in state and federal court, were dismissed.

On October 27, 2010, a federal jury convicted Ford of two counts of extortion and one of lying to the FBI. He was later sentenced to 12½ years in prison. Ford was convicted of shaking down criminal defendants for thousands of dollars in return for falsely identifying them as informants who had helped solve homicides. Ford was responsible for “closing” nearly 200 homicides over his nearly 30-year career and the identities of most of his “informants” remained secret.

By the time of Ford’s conviction, his investigative methods were already under scrutiny. He was the lead detective in the case of the “Norfolk Four,” the four young Navy seamen who had falsely confessed to Ford their involvement in the rape and murder of a woman in 1997. Their exonerations occurred between 2011 and 2017.

In late 2019, Fuller met with Juliet Hatchett and students at the Innocence Project of the University of Virginia School of Law. On January 15, 2020, Fuller said in an affidavit that she had testified falsely at Merritt’s trial. He had never confessed to her, Fuller said, and Ford fed her details of the crime to make her testimony credible.

“I knew Gilbert and Eric but I told Detective Ford that I did not know anything about Mr. Burdett’s murder,” Fuller said in the affidavit. “He didn’t seem to care. He wanted my testimony, even though he knew that I didn’t actually have any information about the case. Detective Ford told me that if I testified against Gilbert Merritt, he would help me out at the sentencing on my pending charges. He broke down the time I was facing. I agreed to cooperate with Detective Ford because I understood I was facing practically a life sentence and Ford told me that he could help me go home. I remember that I was scared of dying in prison because of the three-strike laws that he mentioned.”

In a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus first filed in July 2020, Hatchett wrote that Ford’s misconduct in Merritt’s case mirrored the misconduct for which he was convicted in federal court. She said the state had failed to disclose the arrangement between Ford and Fuller to help Fuller on her drug charges. In addition, the state—through Ford—had knowingly presented false testimony, which also violated Merritt’s right to a fair trial.

The state filed to dismiss the petition in 2021, and an evidentiary hearing was scheduled for March 2022.

Prior to the hearing, Governor Ralph Northam granted Merritt a conditional pardon on January 13, 2022, releasing him from prison and placing him on probation for three years. The pardon said that Merritt “was prosecuted based on the work of Norfolk Detective Glenn Ford, who used his official capacity to extort witnesses in order to yield high solvability percentages and was eventually convicted on federal charges.”

The terms of the pardon included a waiver, signed by Merritt, that released all “claims, demands, and causes of action … that are in any way related to or arise out of Mr. Merritt’s arrest or incarceration in the Virginia Department of Corrections.”

In a supplement to its motion to dismiss, the state said that the terms of the pardon barred Merritt from pursuing habeas relief. Previously, it had said Merritt’s petition was untimely because Merritt could have raised his claims sooner. (Fuller had apologized to Merritt in 2014 or 2015, prior to her recantation.)

At the evidentiary hearing, Fuller said she did go to the hospital, but she did not hear anything there about who shot Eric Amlet. She also said that someone called and told her about the shooting; she did not hear about it from Patricia Short. Fuller said she left the hospital and never heard from Merritt that night.

Fuller said that Ford sought her out after her arrest in July 2000. Fuller said she had been diagnosed as bipolar and that when she first met with Ford she was in a manic state, abusing drugs and going without sleep. She said Ford helped her rehearse her testimony and assured her that her sentence on the drug charges would be suspended.

Merritt testified at the hearing. He said he had rejected a plea offer before trial because he was confident he would be acquitted.

Merritt said he left the hospital late, joined by his mother, Amlet’s children, and their mother. They dropped off Amlet’s family and then went to Short’s apartment. Later, Merritt said, he called his girlfriend, Kimberly, who was also the mother of his newborn twins, and she traveled to Norfolk and brought him back to Virginia Beach. Merritt said he knew nothing about the identity of his brother’s shooter when he left the hospital and that Fuller was never at the apartment.

Merritt was asked: “Is Lisa Fuller a person you would call for a ride to your girlfriend’s house?”

He answered: “As I said earlier, my only dealings with Lisa was strictly buy and sell. I sold drugs. She’d buy it or she’ll allow us to use her house. We rent her house out for drugs to sell out of. So, no … There’s no way I would even allow her to get close to where my children live at.”

Merritt and his sister, Gwen, also testified at the hearing that they could not communicate with their brother at the hospital because of the extent of his injuries. Amlet would have been unable to tell them anything about the person or persons who shot him, they said.

Merritt’s legal team had obtained additional police records from the initial investigation, including police notes that said multiple witnesses gave similar accounts of a gray, silver, or light-colored sedan speeding away from the Tinee Giant after the shooting.

Merritt’s trial attorney testified at the hearing that he never received these notes, which he could have used to impeach Fuller’s testimony about Merritt’s alleged statements.

On July 11, 2022, Judge Mary Jane Hall of Norfolk City Circuit Court granted Merritt’s habeas petition and vacated his conviction. She said Fuller’s testimony was clearly false, unsupported by other evidence or by common sense.

Judge Hall said that Merritt’s mother was on vacation when she heard about the shooting and rushed back to Norfolk. “It strains logic to conclude that Mrs. [Short] would use her phone to call and inform her daughter Gwen of the shooting, but would take the time to travel to Fuller’s home—a person whom she said she hardly knew—to inform her in person,” the judge wrote.

Judge Hall said that prosecutors had presented false testimony from Fuller and Ford to secure Merritt’s conviction, and they had failed to disclose the police notes on the witness descriptions of the vehicle seen at the time of the shooting.

In his deposition testimony for the hearing, Ford said there was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony connecting Merritt to the murder and that he purposely failed to thoroughly investigate the crime.

“The Court finds that the preponderance of the evidence in this case establishes that Ford's conduct was aimed at engineering a specific outcome in which Merritt would be wrongfully convicted and Ford would take credit for solving a homicide,” Judge Hall wrote.

The State of Virginia appealed the ruling, again arguing that Merritt’s petition had been untimely and that the pardon agreement barred Merritt from pursuing habeas relief. It also said that Judge Hall had erred in her ruling that the state’s failure to turn over the notes on the vehicle description was a disclosure violation.

On February 15, 2024, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed Judge Hall’s decision. The appellate court said that Fuller’s apology to Merritt in 2014 or 2015 was “generalized” and did not mention her testimony or the coercion by Ford. The court also said that the conditions outlined in the pardon, although “not a model of clarity,” were not meant to preclude Merritt from seeking an exoneration.

Judge Hall granted the state’s motion to dismiss Merritt’s charges on February 27, 2024.

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 4/4/2024
Last Updated: 4/4/2024
County:Norfolk City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:30 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No