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Palm Coast Man Who Shot Wife With AK-47 Continues to Fight His 25-Year Sentence

| April 8, 2016

william merrill

William Merrill in court last week. (© FlaglerLive)

Last Updated: 2:49 p.m.

Until he was stunned by a 25-year prisons sentence for killing his wife with an AK-47 on Palm Coast’s Covington Lane four years ago, William Merrill, a three-time felon, had been getting away with relatively light or no punishment for crime after crime, felony after felony, going back to his youth in Tennessee.

He’d had a felony drug conviction, he reduced a drunk driving charge to reckless driving, he was guilty of driving without a license, only to be arrested again several times on similar drug and lawless driving charges. That was before he moved to Palm Coast, where he was raising a family with his wife, Stefanie, who told police the time he head-butted her and threw her on the bed while berating her over money that he’d beaten her before. He managed to have her drop that charge, too. When two Bunnell cops caught him with firearms the next year, a felony since he was not allowed to carry guns as a convicted felon, that charge, too, was dropped. The same year he was found guilty of grand theft—yet another felony—when he stole from his employer. He avoided prison, and managed to end his probation early.

His obsession with guns never waned. (As a young man, a friend described firing a gun so close to Merrill’s ear that Merrill went deaf in that ear.) Despite his arrest on the gun charge, he stashed 20 guns at his house on Covington Lane. He played with the guns, too: he was proud, or reckless, or stupid enough to take a picture showing a rifle’s laser beam aimed at Stefanie’s head, and keep that picture in his phone.

It was in a repeat of that scene—with Merrill aiming the AK-47 at his wife while she was giving their daughter a bath—that Merrill “accidentally” shot and killed his wife, though even then he never took responsibility.

“I didn’t pull the trigger on the gun,” Merrill said, recalling testimony he gave detectives during court proceedings last month. “I told them that the gun discharged while I was messing with the laser sight.”

“While you were pointing it at your wife,” Chris Miller, an assistant state attorney, said.

“No, not then,” Merrill replied. “I told them about the pointing it at my wife, the laser itself, but when I was actually inspecting the laser it was, there was like a dead spot in the laser, it was a touch-activated laser, and it should come on whenever you touch it, wherever you touch on the pressure switch, and it wasn’t, and that’s where I was messing with the laser at that point, when it got discharged. At that point in time I wasn’t focusing the firearm on my wife, no.”

Yet somehow the bullet went through Stefanie’s chest, and she was dead shortly after.

It’s not clear when Merrill saved the picture of the laser pointing at his wife’s head, or why he would do so, though he’s exhibited the characteristics of a narcissist. (A tattoo on his chest memorializes not his vaunted love for his wife or God or his children, but his own initials.) What is clear is that, in a grim irony of his own making, he would end up using that picture, among others, to accuse the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office of conducting an improper search of his phone in an attempt to throw out the 25-year verdict against him and call for a new trial: Merrill—who cries profusely and portrayed himself as a God-fearing loving father and husband at his sentencing four years ago–is not accepting that he could spend a third of his natural life in prison for killing the woman he claims considered him “the man of her dreams.”

Even though he entered a no-contest plea to the manslaughter charge, he tried to have his sentence reduced. The court denied the motion. Six months after his sentencing he filed a belated appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. The court denied it. Last year, in July, he filed yet another motion, this one claiming on seven counts that his sentencing was improper because it was based on a series of errors, and warrants a new trial. Then-Circuit Judge J. David Walsh threw out five of the seven claims, calling them “meritless,” but allowed two of them to be addressed in an evidentiary hearing.

The two claims are that Merrill tendered an involuntary plea, because he was under the impression that, based on his attorney’s advice, he would only get probation, not 25 years in prison. And that deputies seized his cell phone containing incriminating images without his consent “despite,” as the court wrote, “his written consent to a search of his home for any evidence that has a bearing on the investigation.” Merrill claims his attorney did not object to the phone seizure, leading to Merrill’s charge that he got ineffective counsel.


Arguing that his plea was involuntary, and that his attorney was ineffective.
 


Merrill was in court before Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman on March 21, and again last week, for a hearing on those two counts. The hearing took up some five hours, at the end of which Foxman took the arguments under advisement: his decision was expected any day.

Today, shortly after this article first posted, Foxman’s order, which had been signed April 7, was posted on the clerk of court’s website: both of Merrill’s motions were denied. (See the full order below.)

The ineffective counsel charge came down to Merrill’s word against the word of his attorney, Brett Kocijan (who’d been appointed by the court), though there was more to Kocijan’s word: the attorney kept copious notes, which the prosecution used to undermine Merrill’s claims to the point of portraying him as a liar.

“Did you ever promise Mr. Merrill that if he pled to the charge in this case that he would get a probation sentence?” Miller asked Kocijan in last month’s hearing.

“Never,” Kocijan said.

“Was probation ever even offered by the prosecutor handling at the time, Mr. Mathis?”

“Never. I will tell you, Mr. Merrill wanted probation, but it was never a consideration of the state as part of the resolution of this case,” Kocijan said.

“So that was never an offer ever even contemplated to your knowledge by the state attorney handling the case at the time.”

“Correct.”

Kocijan’s notes and correspondence with Merrill corroborate the account. From day one, Merrill had made clear he did not want a trial. He wanted to plea.

“Did you ever promise or tell Mr. Merrill that he would receive a downward departure or a probationary sentence?” Miller asked, referring to the legal term that gives a judge discretion to impose a lighter sentence. The sentencing judge was Raul Zambrano.

“No,” Kocijan said, “I wouldn’t with Judge Zambrano, just from experience with Zambrano, he’s tough.”

Merrill’s current attorney, Rachel Bushey, tried to elicit more details from the way Kocijan had spoken of probation to Merrill. She did, but not enough to make Merrill’s case.

“I know he’d asked me several times can we get a probationary sentence,” Kocijan said. “Is it possible? Yes. Do I think you’re going to get one in this case? No I don’t. I think that in part of why I think he was looking at a split sentence, too, we understood there was going to be some form of incarceration. How much was the question. With the judge we had in the case and what the allegations were here, the seriousness of the charge, I would have and I did tell him that probation is not likely in this type of case.”

Rachel Bushey

William Merrill speaking with his attorney, Rachel Bushey. (© FlaglerLive)

Merrill’s testimony was diametrically opposed, though he had nothing to prove it—not even letters he’d written Kocijan, though he’d written him frequently.

“What ultimately led me to take the open plea, it didn’t have to do with the downward departure, it was that the sentencing was completely up to the judge as far as sentencing to probation or 30 years,” Merrill said. “I wasn’t aware that the court had to go by the guidelines at all.”

But that flatly contradicted what Merrill said during his plea before the judge, who had asked the prosecutor and Merrill at his sentencing if Merrill clearly understood what sort of sentence his open plea was potentially opening him to.

Thirty years, the prosecutor had said at the time.

“I just want to make sure,” the judge had said, that “this was conveyed to him.” Kocijan and the prosecutor assured him, with Merrill standing by them, that that had been the case. The judge then again posed the question to Merrill.

“Your exposure is anywhere between zero and the maximum of 30 years,” Judge Zambrano had said to Merrill at that 2012 hearing.

“Yes, your honor,” Merrill replied.

“And that is what you want to do?” the judge, who had earlier warned Merrill that “it’s almost always unwise to do that, but it is your right,” asked.

“Yes, your honor.”

Given the record, it was very unlikely that Foxman would rule in Merrill’s favor on that count.

But the second count—about the fact that Kocijan allegedly did not object to deputies seizing the cell phone and searching it—raised serious issues about police interpretation of and discretion with consents to search a home: does that consent extend to a phone, which normally requires a search warrant to be searched? Merrill’s attorney argues that it does not. The prosecution argues that it does. Merrill says he never gave consent to have his phone searched.

Whether the phone search itself was legal or not is not central to the issue: the prosecution claims that the pictures were never instrumental in the case against Merrill, though the prosecution did describe the picture showing a laser beam on Stefanie’s head during sentencing, thus potentially aggravating what sentence Merrill received. But evidence presented at sentencing doesn’t have to meet the same high threshold of admissibility as it does at trial.

Regardless: Kocijan said he did not file a motion to suppress the evidence from the phone because Merrill had made clear he did not want to go to trial, making that evidence moot.

william merrill

William Merrill will remain in prison.

“The most compelling evidence that corroborates Mr. Kocijan’s and belies Mr. Merrill’s claim,” Miller, the prosecutor, said as he closed his arguments last week, “is the letter that he wrote Mr. Kocijan the day after he got 25 years in prison, when anyone who had been promised probation would be furious. If they went into that hearing thinking I’m going home at the end of this year and they come back with five years shy of the maximum sentence, anyone , any rational person would be angry, and they would be writing an angry letter to their lawyer saying, what the heck happened, why did I not get probation as you probation. There would be some mention of that. Yet in Tab L, the letter written the day after, no mention whatsoever of probation. That’s perhaps the strongest evidence that Mr. Kocijan is more credible, that there was never a promise of probation. A hope, but not a promise.” He concluded: “This was a case of buyer’s remorse.”

Foxman ruled that even if a motion to suppress the pictures had been filed, the court would have denied it, “because law enforcement did not exceed the scope of [Merrlill’s] consent.”

Merrill, who was in the courtroom for both days’ hearing and otherwise held at the county jail, was then returned to prison pending Foxman’s decision. Since Foxman denied Merrill’s motions, the sentence stands, and that’s where Merrill will remain: at the 956-bed Avon Park state prison. If Foxman had granted one or both motions, the case would then have restarted from zero, with either a plea tendered or a trial.

Throughout the hearing, Stefanie’s parents sat in the courtroom, watching. Merrill had claimed along the way that he was contesting his prison sentence because he wants to be a father to his two children. In fact, his parental rights have been ended, with Stefanie’s parents adopting the two young children. Merrill’s battle, the hearing made clear, is mostly about Merrill: he does not want to be in prison, though absent a successful appeal of the latest judgment, that’s where he will remain until 2032, when he would have served 80 percent of his sentence and may be eligible for parole.

He has 30 days to appeal Foxman’s judgment.

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21 Responses for “Palm Coast Man Who Shot Wife With AK-47 Continues to Fight His 25-Year Sentence”

  1. Puff the Magic Bullet says:

    This guy is a lying loser. Take your punishment like the half of a man you are. Even without the manslaughter charge the guns alone should get him twenty plus years. He probably was threatening and intimidating her and called his own bluff when he pulled the trigger. It’s not like he was out at the range or hunting and a tragedy happened. No he gets up first thing in the morning to supposedly fondle his loaded ak47 and bang she’s dead shot to the chest. Probably should have been murder.

  2. Ken Dodge says:

    It should be clear beyond any doubt that the responsibility for Stefanie Merrill’s death lies both with the manufacturers of the rifle and of the laser sight.

  3. Ken Dodge says:

    . . . and with the manufacturer of the ammunition as well.

  4. Cheryl says:

    You aren’t serious with that comment, are you?

  5. Anonymous says:

    He’s narcissist and narcissists don’t usually change. They don’t feel that they have to. If their backs get forced against the wall, they lie and/or bully without impunity to get out from under the consequences of their behavior and attitude. When that doesn’t work, they may lash out physically and with viciousness–again, without impunity. There is no medication to make them other than they what they are. He’s already killed one person and wrecked God knows how many other lives, including his own. Enough is enough. If he wants to try to redeem himself, he can make those efforts from behind prison walls.

  6. Be. says:

    Can you believe how many times this guy walked, if the system did there job he would have been in jail and this would have never happened. No wonder why criminals like palm coast they no the can plead and Walk

  7. Outsider says:

    And yet more taxpayer money wasted on this turd. I am strongly pro second amendment, and even own an AK-47, and call b.s. on his story. I would never even dream off pointing the the weapon at anyone, even if I was certain there was no round in the breach and the safety was on; you just don’t do that. This man apparently had a history of doing that reoeatedly. His sentence is not long enough, because whenever he gets out he will do something like this again. I say nuke him and save a life or two.

  8. Boris says:

    All those years of skirting the law and he still gets off lightly. Hilarious. Most narcissistic career-criminals have a silver tongue, but this man has a golden tongue. He will probably end up getting out early as well.

  9. woodchuck says:

    Whose fault is it that he received light or no punishment in other crimes?Not his!25+ is a good start.Finally.

  10. Rich Mikola says:

    Welcome to Florida, low bail and little punishment. Criminals are back on the street before the police are done with the paperwork. What a joke!

  11. Geezer says:

    Mr. Merrill just throws up lie after lie in the hopes that one will stick.
    What does he have to lose, but time off his sentence?

    The picture on his phone seemed to imply that this murderous fool had a
    recurring homicidal ideation about his wife. There’s nothing funny about a
    picture such as that–never your wife, the mother of your child.

    What kind of person is this?

    Did he have a straw-purchaser to obtain the AK?
    (or the other guns)

    Maybe it’s a pain for some, but when you sell or trade a gun locally, take
    the extra step of conducting the sale through an FFL holder, so that
    an FDLE check can be performed on your customer. Split the transfer fees
    with your buyer. Don’t transfer guns without a criminal background check.
    Not following this simple procedure is akin to courting disaster.
    If your prospective customer objects, then something stinks about him.
    Halt the sale.

    William Merrill, you make me sick.

  12. Common Sense says:

    But wait according to the NRA he has every right to own a gun, so he killed his wife? Collateral damage.

    You see he is what the founding fathers called part of “..a well armed militia.”

  13. Geezer says:

    But wait–there’s more. Justin Bieber fans are rallying together to shut down the NRA.

  14. confidential says:

    Correct common sense!!
    This narcissist criminal needs to be kept away from the children of his murdered wife as far as possible.
    He looks like flirting with his lawyer on the pic ..? How could he smile like that? I agree that the NRA, the AK47 manufacturer and also the ammunition manufacturer should be held liable. Also 25 years for taking away a life is peanuts! He should have gotten no less than 50 a life term for a life taken. Then would be justice. Why wasting my tax dollars on his appeals, transportation to court, etc?
    Same as the case as the 64 years old Deland guy often a DUI that run a stop sign and killed a grandma and her 3 granddaughters and didn’t even bother try to save them from the overturned jeep fire. Just “casually he was not DUI” at the moment…excuse me…but I do not believe it. Now they will spend several millions to improve the intersection when the guy run a STOP sign…is he going to be deemed innocent too?

  15. Sherry says:

    WHY WHY WHY would any “SANE” person need such a lethal weapon???? The answer is that only “INSANE” people buy AK47 type guns!!! And, it is completely legal for those on the “Terrorist Watch List” to buy them at gun shows!!! Our lack of gun safety regulations is nothing short of criminal!! Thanks NRA. . . for your legal bribery of our government decision makers!!

    In addition, apparently our legal and court system is much too lax on such repeat offenders!!! I can’t help but think that if this horrific human being had skin that was a few shades darker he would still be in jail from his first felony. . . and maybe his poor wife would still be alive and happily single.

    What a world we have allowed!!!

  16. Old Sailor says:

    Your wife would like to appeal the bullets that killed her! that were discharged by your hand. I hardly believe this was an accident. This man belongs behind bars.

  17. Why do it matter says:

    Sound like a Savage to me but white people are quick black people a Savage I’m just saying

  18. Outsider says:

    “Common Sense:” Once again, you prove that liberals cannot make an argument without making up stuff. The NRA does not, and never has advocated that felons should have access to guns. Please cite a source for your statement. Roll the Jeopardy music, please.

  19. Just a citizen says:

    I truly can not believe the ignorance in some of these comments. Are you serious about blaming the NRA and manufacturers? You do realize that there are millions of registered gun owners that respect their weapons and are responsible with them. Why should the NRA be blamed for a narcissistic idiot who obviously obtained all these weapons illegally and no amount of blame is ever going to make that stop. What needs to happen is there needs to be tougher sentences for people caught with illegal firearms especially if there felons with violent histories. This man should have been sitting in jail a long time ago.

  20. Geezer says:

    Outsider, and Just a Citizen:

    The commentator in question uses arguments from ignorance, ad nauseum–
    a seemingly ubiquitous method for making a point without factual evidence,
    employing a deliberate fallacy, or other form of plausible distortions.

    It’s great to differ and post a good retort to a comment or article which you
    disagree with. My view is that we all have to live together and learn to agree
    to disagree. I enjoy reading divergent opinions.

    Just being annoying with one-liners really cheapens the discussions here.

    Outsider, please keep up your comments, as I enjoy reading them, and Just a Citizen–
    I look forward to your future comments. And Flaglerlive, keep up the excellent
    articles.

    I wish all of you a nice weekend. I feel as if I know many of you.

    Warm regards from up north!

  21. r&r says:

    Chicago has gun control laws and lead the country in murders by gun shot. When gun controls are put in the good people turn them in and the thugs keep them and ignor the law.

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