Judge denies motion to dismiss 'with prejudice' in freeway shootings casePosted: Updated:
A Superior Court judge ruled on Tuesday the records and documents in the freeway shootings case be released with redactions so the public can read them.
The records include a ballistics report that attorneys for Leslie Merritt Jr. say led to the dismissal of his case late last month. The documents will be publicly released within the next 14 days after lawyers have redacted the personal information of victims and witnesses.
Judge Warren Granville said victim's rights and protecting their information are very important.
Granville heard arguments from both sides on the matter of unsealing the evidence in the case against Merritt and his other ruling allowing the state to bring charges against him in the future.
"Mr. Merritt has been publicly accused, humiliated, embarrassed and dragged through the mud," defense attorney Jason Lamm said. "Mr. Merritt has, in fact, a greater right to have his name not maintained in its pristine status but restored to a pristine status because the charges have been dismissed, he is presumed innocent because he is in fact innocent based on the utter lack of evidence in this case."
Lamm said all Merritt wants is is "his good name back."
Prosecutor Vanessa Losicco vehemently argued against unsealing the documents.
"There obviously is a compelling state interest requiring these documents remain sealed," she said. "Your honor, this is an ongoing investigation.”
Losicco continued, "At this point, it is very premature for us to sit here in the capacity in which this case is today and say whether or not any of these documents affect the ongoing investigation and then the due process rights of any individual who is brought before the court on these charges."
She said, "the ethical rules bind us to keep these documents under seal."
In his ruling on the motion, Granville said, "While the court accepts that proffer as true, it is too generalized to overcome the strong public policy that presumes public access to government activities."
Granville also denied a defense motion to dismiss the case with prejudice.
"Based upon the pleadings, the court finds that this dismissal was made for purposes other than to avoid Rule 8," Granville ruled. “The court finds the presumption without prejudice has not been overcome, however it is without prejudice that should charges be refiled that the court be allowed to do analysis of actual prejudice should actual prejudice be shown. So, the motion to dismiss with prejudice is denied."
Prosecutor Edward Leiter said the state will file a response if the court finds it's necessary.
"The state filed, included in our motion, the dismal was not based Rule 8 but it was based on the evidence and this happens all the time – happens every day in this courthouse judge – there’s information that is provided to us and the court is aware of much of that information and in the interest of justice, the state deemed it appropriate to dismiss the case without prejudice and that’s what we did," Leiter told the judge.
Ganville's action means the prosecution could in the future charge Leslie Merritt Jr. in connection with the shootings once again. All charges against Merritt were dropped last month and he is a free man.
"It’s a violation of Rule 8," Lamm told Granville. And the court shouldn’t just gingerly say, 'Well, I’m going to allow dismal without prejudice.' There needs to be some impact, there needs to be some sanction on the state."
Lamm scoffed at the notion that charges could be brought against his client in the future. "We are not foreclosing the possibility of a purple elephant running down the courthouse plaza either, but I wouldn't bet my last dollar on it," Lamm said outside of court.
Defense lawyers have contended that ballistic tests cast doubt on the claim by authorities that Merritt was behind four of the freeway shootings.
DPS Capt. Damon Cecil issued this statement Tuesday after the judge's ruling:
"This is still an active investigation and as Director Milstead stated it is not the appropriate time for the investigatory agency to make a statement on evidence or facts in this case. Please continue to direct your inquiries on Judge Granville's rulings in this case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office."
In the motion, Merritt’s attorneys had accused prosecutors and the Department of Public Safety of hiding from the public the true strength of their case in the investigation.
For a majority of the investigation, attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses, and people related to Merritt had been under a gag order.
"But the case is now over," Lamm had argued. "There's no need for secrecy. This is information that the public is entitled to know."
Lamm maintained by unsealing the documents “the public will understand what the evidence was against Leslie Merritt, and, more importantly, what wasn’t. It’ll show the public why the case unraveled in the rapid fashion it did.”
In Tuesday's court proceedings, Granville further ruled Merritt's personal property can be returned to him.
Merritt was not in the courtroom Tuesday.
When asked where he was, his lawyers said he was in one of his happy places - back at work.
Merritt, who spent seven months in jail before his release from jail in late April, has maintained he is innocent and that authorities arrested the wrong person.
He filed a legal claim - a precursor to a lawsuit - demanding $10 million from the state and county. Merritt alleged that authorities rushed to judgment and failed to provide evidence that he was present at any of the shootings.
In the wake of last summer's shootings, the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety said they were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.
Detectives took Merritt into custody on Sept. 18, prompting Gov. Doug Ducey to declare "We got him!" on Twitter five minutes after the arrest.
In court the next day, Merritt adamantly denied shooting any cars, telling the judge, "I'm the wrong guy."
His lawyers immediately began raising questions about the evidence, citing ballistics information and phone records they say provided an alibi for their client.
The decision to throw out the case leaves unanswered questions of who might be responsible for the shootings. No one else has been arrested in the investigation.
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Attorneys must redact identifying information before they release documents in State v Leslie Merritt Jr.— MC Superior Court (@courtpio) May 10, 2016
Next court date in State v Leslie Merritt Jr is June 17 at 1:30 pm on motions to release other property of defendant (car, gun)— MC Superior Court (@courtpio) May 10, 2016
Hearing concluded. State of Arizona has 2 weeks to unseal/release #i10shootings case evidence/court filings. Will be redacting vic info.— Jonathan Lowe (@JLoweTVNews) May 10, 2016
Victims rights and protecting their information is very important to Judge Granvile, Re: #i10shooting unsealng records/lifting gag order— Jonathan Lowe (@JLoweTVNews) May 10, 2016
Judge Warren Granville vacated the the gag order in State v Leslie Merritt Jr. Also granted defense motion to release personal property.— MC Superior Court (@courtpio) May 10, 2016
Judge Warren Granville orders hearing on defense motion to give Leslie Merritt Jr. his gun and car back for June 17th, 1:30pm.— Jonathan Lowe (@JLoweTVNews) May 10, 2016
That means State of Arizona can re-file charges against Leslie Merritt Jr. relating to shootings along the #i10 last summer.— Jonathan Lowe (@JLoweTVNews) May 10, 2016
Judge Warren Granville has denied the defense Motion to Dismiss with Prejudice in State v Leslie Merritt Jr.— MC Superior Court (@courtpio) May 10, 2016
Copyright 2016 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this story.