PHOENIX (AP) — A landscaper once charged in freeway shootings that set metro Phoenix on edge during the summer of 2015 has asked a judge in his now-dismissed criminal case to issue an order declaring he was cleared of wrongdoing.
An attorney for Leslie Merritt Jr. said in a court filing last week that a declaration of clearance would help him heal from the psychological effects of his arrest. It’s unknown whether Merritt wants to use such a court order at the upcoming trial in his false-arrest lawsuit against the state and Arizona Department of Public Safety employees.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to hold off on ruling on Merritt’s request until his lawsuit concludes.
The shootings sparked so much fear that people avoided driving the freeways, school buses took different routes and signs were posted telling people to be careful. Police heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.
A total of 11 shootings occurred on Phoenix-area freeways in late August and early September 2015. No one was seriously injured when eight cars were hit with bullets and three others were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. The only injury occurred when a 13-year-old girl was cut by glass.
Investigators said Merritt’s handgun was linked to four of the shootings, but Merritt insisted he’s innocent. Merritt was jailed for seven months until his charges were dismissed in 2016 at the request of prosecutors after ballistics evidence came under heavy criticism.
An outside forensic firearms examiner said bullets from the four shootings couldn’t be “excluded or identified” as having come from Merritt’s gun. The judge presiding over the lawsuit has said the firearms examiner and two other ballistics experts found insufficient evidence to link Merritt’s gun to the four shootings.
In his lawsuit, Merritt says authorities pursued charges even though they knew his handgun was at a pawn shop during the last of the four shootings with which he was charged. He accused the Department of Public Safety of changing the timeline of the shooting to fit a theory that a bullet from Merritt’s gun got lodged in the sidewall of a tire.
The agency has denied both allegations.
While authorities say the investigation has continued, no one else has been arrested.
Merritt’s request was made under an Arizona law that allows wrongfully arrested people to ask a judge to note in court and police records that they have been cleared of wrongdoing.
Prosecutor Barbara Marshall said in court records that waiting until the conclusion of Merritt’s civil trial will provide the court with “the totality of information” and that there’s no detrimental effect in postponing a decision.
“Furthermore, a consideration of these issues at this time could interfere with the selection of a fair and unbiased jury in the pending federal court matter and could be considered as an attempt to get a ruling from an alternative court on these issues,” Marshall wrote.
Merritt’s attorney, Jason Lamm, declined to answer a question from The Associated Press about whether he wanted to use such a court order at Merritt’s April 6 civil trial.
In court records, Lamm took issue with waiting for a ruling. “To say there would be ‘no detrimental impact to Mr. Merritt’ is offensive and insulting as the statement concludes that he should endure prolonged suffering and public humiliation from crimes he did not commit,” Lamm wrote.
Most of Merritt’s legal claims against Arizona Department of Public Safety officers were dismissed in late 2019. But he can still seek damages on his claims of false arrest and false imprisonment for the six-day span between his arrest and indictment.
A judge has said a jury could reasonably conclude police lacked probable cause to detain Merritt during that six-day period. But the judge also ruled Merritt’s subsequent indictment was supported by a presumption of probable cause.
Maricopa County paid Merritt $100,000 in late 2018 to settle legal claims against then-County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office, which prosecuted Merritt.