Mad River Union
EUREKA – The November trial of a McKinleyville hit-and-run murder suspect has been postponed until the defense receives an accident reconstruction report from an outside expert.
James Arthur Merrick II, 47, is accused of killing Tessa Gingerich, 16, also of McKinleyville, in an alcohol-fueled hit-and-run collision near Mill Creek Marketplace last December. Gingerich was a student at Pacific Coast High School.
Tentatively, the trial had been scheduled to begin Nov. 20, but last week the defense requested a continuance while a San Francisco-area accident reconstruction company, Rudy Degger and Associates, conducts an engineering analysis of the fatal collision.
Merrick’s interim defense lawyer, Marek Reavis of the county’s Conflict Counsel Office, said in a subsequent interview late Friday that there was no fixed date for Degger to complete the reconstruction.
Reavis had said at a mid-week court hearing, where he requested the continuance, that a new colleague in the Conflict Counsel’s Office, Meagan O’Connell, would be taking over the defense.
Merrick appeared in handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit but did not speak.
The People, on behalf of Gingerich’s family and loved ones, opposed the continuance in favor of expediting the trial. Reavis argued that the accident reconstruction is crucial to Merrick’s defense.
Accident reconstruction and forensic engineering use simulation software and other techniques to pinpoint all or most of the factors in-play in a crash or collision. Mechanical systems, including steering and braking, are investigated, along with road conditions. State-of-the-art data mining can determine engine and vehicle speeds, throttle position and brake status five seconds prior to impact, according to Degger’s website.
The results of the reconstruction might enable the defense to argue that Merrick’s murder charge should be reduced to vehicular manslaughter, in view of the recently installed median strips in high-traffic locations of McKinleyville.
Merrick, who has a prior DUI record and is a registered out-of-state sex offender, “voluntarily admitted to having consumed alcohol earlier in the evening” of Dec. 14, according to notes taken at the scene by a California Highway Patrol officer and put in the defendant’s case file.
Merrick’s blood alcohol levels registered .166 percent and .159 percent; the legal limit is 0.08 percent.
The defendant said he was alone in his 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 when he allegedly struck Gingerich. She died at Mad River Community Hospital shortly after being hit after dark at about 8:07 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
Merrick pleaded not guilty to four counts: murder; driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury within 10 years of another DUI offense; DUI with more than 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, causing injury; and hit and run driving resulting in the death of, or serious injury to, another person.
Merrick’s $1 million bail was withheld by then-Judge Marilyn B. Miles because of his prior DUI and violation of probation for “reckless driving involving alcohol.” (Miles retired in July).
According to the California Highway Patrol, Gingerich was walking northbound on the east shoulder of Central Avenue, north of Anna Sparks Way, in McKinlelyville. Merrick was turning his 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 from eastbound Anna Sparks Way onto northbound Central Avenue. He allegedly allowed his truck, a model that weighs in at some 4,100-5,200 pounds, “to drift off the roadway and onto the shoulder after turning onto Central Avenue.”
After striking the teenager, Merrick continued eastbound on the shoulder until it ran into a light pole, the CHP said.
“Witnesses on-scene stated that Merrick attempted to back his truck away from the area of impact, moving five to 10 feet from the impact,” according to the arrest record. “Merrick had to be physically removed from [the] truck by witnesses to keep him from fleeing the scene,” officers reported.
The fatal McKinleyville hit-and-run occurred some five months after the deaths of two teenage girls a year ago in July in Fortuna. Marci Kitchen of Fortuna is free on $750,000 bail after pleading not guilty on multiple counts to colliding with her daughter Kiya, 14, and close friend Faith Lorraine Tsarnas, also 14, as they skateboarded together on Fortuna’s outskirts after dark.
Like Merrick, Kitchen is accused of drunken driving but is charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, not murder, among other charges.
Her trial, repeatedly delayed, is scheduled to start Monday, Nov. 13, but her lawyers might request another continuance at the trial confirmation hearing Oct. 25.
Courthouse blogger John Chiv reported Oct. 16 that her attorneys have subpoenaed records from Oakland Children’s Hospital, where Kiya Kitchen succumbed the morning after she was struck down, allegedly at high speed. Marci Kitchen was present when her daughter died.