CAROL VAN STRUM stood on the steps of the Marion County Courthouse, one hand shielding the sunlight from her eyes, straining to catch sight of the man who had agreed to try to save her son. With so many lawyers streaming in and out of the building—men and women in tailored suits, cell phones pressed to their ears—it was turning out to be a difficult task.
So it helped when Michael Rose announced his arrival not with a firm handshake or the presentation of a business card, but with a commotion. One that sounded like a million asthmatics hocking up a lung.
It was the death rattle of his prized relic, a 1989 Mazda sedan badly in need of repair. Not exactly the kind of chariot Van Strum had expected from someone whose name graces the Portland law firm Steenson, Schumann, Tewksbury, Creighton and Rose. Nor was his garb what she’d anticipated: a cream-colored jacket that appeared yellow in the sunlight and a psychedelic, Jerry Garcia-brand tie dangling from his neck.
“You could probably have spotted that tie from a satellite,” says Van Strum of Rose’s grand entrance that day in March 2007. “It was hard to keep a straight face.”
But if Van Strum was laughing, she quickly hid her mirth in Rose’s shoulder, eschewing formality in favor of a crushing hug. The two had met before, briefly, but today the stakes were high. This man with a tousled Brillo pad of hair and a sandy red mustache—a man whose name inmates often had summoned in the darkest, most hopeless confines of the Oregon State Penitentiary—had promised to achieve what seemed impossible: overturn her son’s murder conviction.
Rose had filed a motion for the most elusive of appeals, what is termed in legal parlance “post-conviction relief,” a kind of last-chance law that allows defendants to challenge a guilty verdict—but only after exhausting every other appeal. Van Strum’s adopted son, Jordan Scott Merrell, already had spent nine years behind bars. Today Judge Terry Leggert finally would reconsider his case. If Leggert ruled in Rose’s favor, Merrell would not be set free, but he would be granted a new day in court and the chance to plead his case in front of another jury—as if the original trial had never taken place.
In 1998, Merrell was convicted of the grisly murder of an elderly man in Eugene. At the time of the killing, the youth had not yet celebrated his 16th birthday, and his case was one of the first to test the uncompromising teeth of Measure 11, a controversial initiative passed by Oregon voters in 1994 that not only established mandatory minimum sentences for a range of serious crimes, but also required offenders over the age of 15 to be tried as adults. Merrell pled not guilty to the charges, but after a court case that lasted only a few days, the jury delivered a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to 25 years. No time off for good behavior. No chance for parole.
Yes, he’d confessed to the murder during the original investigation. But Merrell later said that he’d done so only to cover for a friend and that he was not, in fact, the killer. His fellow inmates told him that there was one man he should contact for help: attorney Michael Rose.