According to police reports, the youths had snuck into Bonci’s house during the afternoon to steal money. Bonci was lying on the floor watching television, but apparently put up a struggle when they tried to take his wallet from him. That’s when somebody used a cane to fracture his skull.
The trio got away with $87, enough to buy a bag of marijuana and snacks at a local Circle K. Within two days, police picked them up on the Eugene Mall, a public space in downtown Eugene where kids, junkies, and heshers often hung out.
The crime was gruesome. But perhaps more disturbing, the suspects were just young teenagers. Gottfried and Colborn were both 14, and they looked it, even in the mug shots printed in the newspaper. Merrell was only a year older, but at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he towered over most kids his age. Eugene detective Rick Gilliam, one of the investigators on the case, was quoted in the paper as saying that “just [Merrell] alone could have handled this victim very easily.”
On July 17, 1997, a grand jury indicted Merrell on charges of felony murder, as well as robbery and burglary. Colborn and Gottfried were tried as juveniles and eventually sentenced to 17 and 11 years respectively. Merrell, on the other hand, was prosecuted under Measure 11, making him one of the first Oregonians under age 16 to face the automatic 25-year sentence.
While the prosecution lacked the physical evidence to prove that Merrell was the one who killed Bonci, it had something even more damning: a confession. Soon after his trial started on February 19, 1998, the jury listened to the tape-recorded statement in which Merrell told police that the three had joked about the sound the cane made as Bonci’s skull caved in.
All told, the prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Caren Tracy, delivered 332 pages of “discovery” evidence and numerous witnesses, ranging from the state’s deputy medical examiner to Merrell’s ex-girlfriend, to the court.
Halpern’s defense, on the other hand, conceded that while Merrell may have struck Bonci, the relatively low amount of blood in the living room, where the attack occurred, meant the blow itself didn’t actually kill the man. Halpern’s lone witness, a Portland-based pathologist with no expertise in blood spatter patterns (and with only the state’s evidence on which to base his opinion), testified by phone. It took the jury less than an hour to convict Merrell.
Of course, the jury never heard about the well-known unreliability of juvenile confessions, or the pattern of aggression that Colborn had displayed toward her grandfather. They certainly didn’t know that on the day that Bonci was murdered, a witness—who was sitting in the courtroom during the the trial—placed Merrell three miles away. How could they? Halpern never mentioned these points in court.
“I wrote in a brief a long time ago that sometimes all it takes to meet the standard of adequate assistance of counsel is a license, a clean suit, and sober breath … and two out of three is usually enough,” Rose says. “Good attorneys have bad days—but unfortunately this bad day wound up coinciding with the trial of my poor client.”