The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a man who shot his wife in the back of the head in front of their young daughter.
On Sept. 17, 2011, Shay Alexander Merritt called police and reported his wife, Rita Ann Merritt, had committed suicide. While in jail, he told police the shooting had happened during a struggle where he believed she would harm herself.
According to court documents, the responding coroner, and later a crime scene investigator, stated Rita Merritt’s wound didn’t fit either description that her husband gave police.
“There was no physical way (Rita) could have shot herself behind the ear with that rifle,” a statement by the Polk County coroner read.
Police arrested Merritt and he was convicted in 2014 on murder and cruelty to children charges, then sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is currently serving that sentence at Hays State Prison in Trion.
Merritt filed a series of appeals, arguing that the trial court and his attorney made several errors leading up to and during his 2014 trial.
Specifically, he argued the state should not have allowed the cross-examination of a defense psychiatrist concerning potential bias against the prosecution.
The judge allowed prosecutors to question a psychiatrist brought to testify by Merritt’s attorney about a previous arrest. While the high court opinion, authored by Chief Justice Harold Melton, agreed the trial court abused its discretion on that point, it also stated that, in light of the strong evidence presented in the case, “we conclude the error was harmless.”
Merritt also argued the trial judge improperly excluded evidence that his wife belonged to a family of Romanichal gypsies. Justices stated the trial court committed no error in excluding evidence concerning the victim’s lineage.
The high court also ruled against arguments that the trial court erred by not allowing testimony concerning Merritt’s diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, and by allowing testimony about previous abuse in his relationship.
During the trial, testimony from Rita Merritt’s friends described a series of physical and mental abuses as well as an incident in 2008.
The incident occurred at a hospital just after Rita Merritt had given birth to one of their children. While visiting the new baby, Merritt argued and physically fought with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law.
Evidence of the incident was presented at the trial without objection from Merritt’s attorney, and the opinion stated his rights had not been violated.
Lastly, Justice Melton stated Merritt didn’t have a basis for his lack of evidence claim.
“His defense was based on the theory that the shooting was an accident,” the opinion read. “Based on the evidence presented at trial, the jury was authorized to reject Merritt’s accident theory and find him guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.”