Merrell’s case file arrived at Rose’s office in 2001. When he began to peruse the documents—in spite of the confession—Rose saw a post-conviction case that he might be able to win. “If you’re a creative kind of fella, you look at that confession as a challenge,” he says, arching one fuzzy eyebrow. “You have a confession? OK. So the question is: Why isn’t this confession the end of the story?”
At the time that Merrell contacted him, Rose had been working for 26 years as, at various times, a public defender, an indigent defender, and an attorney in private practice. Last-chance appeals like Merrell’s, which Rose only sometimes gets paid for, had become more of a personal crusade. He’d litigated some 150 post-conviction relief cases, but took only about half of the cases brought to him.
Pieces of a murder weapon left in one yard. A knit cap tossed in another. And inside a beige brick house, a body.
The ones he did sign on for were often doozies: In 1995 he had John Sosnovske’s murder conviction overturned and helped pin the crime on the rightful assailant, Keith Hunter Jesperson, known as the Happy Face Killer. But unlike that case—in which Sosnovske pled no contest to a murder that his girlfriend had convinced him he’d committed—Merrell’s case rested on the notion that his original court-appointed attorney, John Halpern, had failed to perform due diligence on his client’s behalf. Rose’s job was to ask: Had Merrell received a fair trial? More specifically, had Merrell’s constitutionally guaranteed right to the “effective assistance of counsel” been fulfilled? Rose was prepared to tell the State of Oregon, emphatically, “No.”
Rose and the private investigator he hired, Stuart Steinberg, spent roughly five years collecting evidence, and on the day that Rose met Van Strum down in Salem, most of that evidence was packed into the trunk of his sedan: box after box of three-inch-thick binders full of affidavits, psychological evaluations, and alibi testimony, none of which Merrell had had access to during his first trial. In fact, Rose and Steinberg had uncovered so much new information on the Merrell case that Rose had to wheel it into the courtroom on a hand truck.
“The reaction from the gallery,” he recalls, “was something like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
It’s late April in Eugene, but a rejuvenating break in the weather offers a sneak peak of summer’s impending beauty. No clouds. The welcoming char of the sun. Up here near the top of College Hill, the smells of fresh-cut grass and spring onions mingle in the breeze, mowers wheeze in the distance, and you can see a clan of Little Leaguers gathering for practice in a baseball field.
It feels safe in this tiny encampment of bungalows. But 11 years ago, during the summer of 1997, this entire southwest Eugene neighborhood was a crime scene. Pieces of a murder weapon left in one yard. A knit cap tossed in the shrubbery of another. And just down the hill, inside a beige brick house that now has two pairs of galoshes drying on the front porch, there was a body. It was here, on the Fourth of July, that 83-year-old Edward Bonci was bludgeoned to death with a cane.
At the time of his death, Bonci was frail and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The yellow bruises on his body testified to a history of falling. But when his son, Scott Bonci, found him the morning after his death, there was blood everywhere: In the living room. Pooled in the kitchen. At first, police weren’t sure what to make of the scene. Three days later, though, what had warranted only a passing blurb in the City/Region Digest of the Register-Guard—“Police investigating death of man, 83”—rocketed to a three-deck headline on page 1A: “Three Youths Arrested After Beating Death.”
Justin Gottfried, Jordan Merrell, and Meryl Colborn, the three acquaintances in custody, all were estranged from their families at the time and, for the most part, were living on the streets. Colborn was the victim’s adopted granddaughter and a frequent visitor to Bonci’s home; because of numerous past altercations with her grandfather, she was a suspect from the beginning.