According to a report from Skipworth Juvenile Facility, where Jordan was taken after his arrest for Bonci’s murder, Jordan complained about “spiders coming through the cracks in the wall.” At one point he drew a cross on the wall of his room with his own blood. He was placed on suicide watch.
Despite all of this, Halpern never had Jordan psychologically evaluated for the trial. Nor did he conduct the kind of investigation that might have led him to build a defense around Jordan’s mental state—although he did file a notice of intent to do just that in August 1997. However, he withdrew the notice in January 1998.
During Jordan’s confession to police, Detective Scott McKee asked him, “And so when you guys came in there, into the room—what was your plan?” In response, Jordan stated, “Like if this was my dad, I thought about my dad a lot and?…?so we just went?…?and did what we did.”
For Merrell’s post-conviction relief hearing, the monsoon of evidence that Rose and Steinberg had uncovered highlighted what Rose, in a memo to the Marion County Circuit Court, called the “thorough failure” of Halpern’s defense. On December 13, 2007, nine months after the hearing, the state signed the petition that granted Merrell the post-conviction relief he sought. The concession speech from Assistant Attorney General Susan Gerber was simple and to the point: “You win.”
Merrell would be assigned a new defense lawyer, who would conduct a new trial, as if the first trial had never occurred.
“In this case we found that the defendant did not have effective counsel,” says Stephanie Soden, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice. “It’s a fairly common reason to petition for post-conviction relief, but it’s one that’s rarely granted. Then again, Michael Rose has a very good reputation.”
Van Strum received the news on her 67th birthday. She said it was the best present she had ever received.
Nevertheless, for the parties involved in the case, there are no happy endings. After all, Scott Bonci lost his father that day in July. “I’m not into retribution,” Scott says. “But I’ve sat through a reenactment of the crime [which was part of Colborn’s court-ordered treatment]. It would really bother me if Jordan said that he wasn’t involved.”
And in the end, Merrell wasn’t sure he could convince a jury that he wasn’t. His new trial was scheduled to begin this month, on June 10. But in early May, he agreed to plead guilty to Edward Bonci’s murder in exchange for a reduced sentence. “There’s a big difference between being granted post-conviction relief and proving that somebody is innocent,” says John Kolego, Merrell’s new attorney. “What Rose did was get the guy a new trial. But there’s always a risk associated with that.”
The plea did, however, reduce the number of years that Merrell must stay in jail—from 14 to 7. “I feel like I’m right there, about to get out, compared to how I was feeling with 14 years left,” Merrell wrote in a letter to his mother. “I assure you I didn’t do what I confessed.?…?But it’s time to move on.”