Defense argues against admissible facts in trial of alleged horse killers
VIRGINIA CITY – Three defendants charged with the December 1998 killing of a wild horse in the Virginia Range will fight to have evidence of more than two dozen other killings made inadmissible during their trial.
In a hearing Thursday at the Storey County Courthouse, lawyers for Anthony Merlino, 21, and two former Marines, Darien Brock, 21, and Scott Brendle, 22, said the additional evidence may prejudice a jury into believing the men were tied to the other crimes.
Judge Michael Griffin ruled against the motion, affirming District Attorney Sharon Claassen’s argument that the information is necessary to tell the story of the alleged horse shooting. But Griffin kept open the possibility of arguing the evidence point-by-point.
“I believe that the state has concluded that somebody else must have killed a number of those horses,” Griffin said, referring to evidence of alternative suspects. “The evidence indicates the defendants didn’t arrive until a number of those horses were dead.”
Griffin also ordered that an allegation that the suspects’ Miranda rights were violated will be argued in a closed hearing next week. Lawyers said self-implicating statements were made before the defendants’ rights were read.
Brock’s attorney Marc Picker said without the statements, the state’s case hinges on circumstantial evidence.
“Basically, they don’t have any evidence,” he said.
Claassen has conceded that shell casings and other evidence connected to many of the killings did not match the .270-caliber rifle the men were alleged to have used in the killing of one horse.
A separate motion to examine investigators’ notes was granted after lawyers argued that information about other suspects may help their case.
“There were lots of alternative suspects,” said Scott Freeman, Merlino’s lawyer. “There were people with guns and opportunity and motive.
“They stopped the investigation entirely when they arrested these boys.”
A motion to move the trial to a different jurisdiction because of the threat of pretrial publicity was also denied.
Griffin said there is no way to know whether the Storey County jury pool is tainted until it is sequestered. “The issue is: Even if people have some information, can they still sit fairly in the case?”
The motion can be reentered at the trial, Griffin said.
The trio was originally charged with the killing of more than two dozen horses found Dec. 27 but a justice court ruling and a March 9 ruling by Griffin reduced the charges to a single gross misdemeanor. The penalty for the reduced charge carries a maximum of one year in jail, a $2,000 fine and restitution.
Merlino, Brock and Brendle are scheduled to go to trial April 17.