Carol Van Strum can’t say exactly when initial misgivings about her son’s public defender turned into outright, helpless horror. Perhaps it was when she sat down to write the 23rd letter to Halpern begging him to visit her son in the Lane County Jail, where Merrell was being held before the trial. Or maybe it was the 39th. Between July 15, 1997, and February 25, 1998, Van Strum sent her son’s attorney 41 letters and faxes asking for updates or information about the impending trial. Only rarely did she receive a reply.
Panicked, Van Strum called a lawyer friend who lived in California. “He said the thing to do was to get the police report and go through it line by line and put in writing every contradiction I found—everything that pointed away from Jordan or suggested he wasn’t there,” Van Strum says. “That’s what I did.”
Underlining. Highlighting. Looking for anything that might pass for reasonable doubt. What Van Strum, a freelance writer and $8-an-hour bookstore employee, found on page 245 of the police report—what Halpern, a criminal defense lawyer with degrees from Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and the University of California-Berkeley, had failed to notice—was evidence suggesting that Merrell might not have been present during the crime at all.
In Merrell’s confession, he stated that he struck Bonci in the late afternoon or early evening, “probably 6:30 [p.m.] at the earliest.” But at the original trial, the time of death was established as sometime prior to 2 p.m. This timeline was pieced together from the testimony of Colborn—who told police that she, Merrell, and Gottfried first went to Bonci’s house at around 11 a.m. and then again around noon, when they robbed and killed him—and that of a neighbor, Rex Prater, who told police he found a portion of the cane allegedly used in the attack in his yard at approximately 2 p.m.
This discrepancy was never brought up by Halpern at trial, even though Van Strum claims she pointed it out to him at least two months before the proceedings began. Nor was the fact that during the established time frame of the crime, Merrell could have been somewhere else. In interviews with the police seven days after the crime—and in a sworn affidavit taken nearly 10 years later—Elisa Olalde, then a friend of Merrell’s, says he was at her house from “sometime before I woke up at 8:30 a.m. until approximately 12:30 p.m.” All of this information was in the police report.
Halpern refused to talk about his defense strategy when contacted for this story. Richard Hursey, the investigator hired by Halpern to track and interview witnesses, didn’t return calls seeking comment. But Patricia Jaqua, Halpern’s other investigator, concedes that “I’m not real surprised they went for a retrial.”
There was also the fact that Colborn had a history of taking advantage of her grandfather’s dementia to talk him out of money. Things got so bad at one point that Bonci’s son (and Colborn’s adoptive father), Scott, taped a sign to the inside of his father’s door—a warning for Bonci’s Meals-on-Wheels volunteer that read, “If Meryl comes to the door, don’t open it. Call 911.”