PHOENIX - A civil trial prompted by a lawsuit filed by a 26-year-old man alleging false arrest by authorities in connection with the Phoenix freeway shooting saga began on Oct. 28.
He steadfastly maintained his innocence and the case against him was finally dismissed in 2016 after ballistic evidence came under heavy criticism.
Merritt claims arrest left him traumatized
During the trial, Merritt claims he suffered catastrophic damages because of being falsely arrested and falsely incarcerated. Forensic psychologist Dr. Jill Hayes tested Merritt, met with him, and evaluated him over the past few years. She diagnosed him with PTSD, major depressive disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
"The index trauma for Mr. Merritt would be being falsely arrested in September 2015, falsely incarcerated," read a portion of Dr. Hayes' testimony. "He was surveilled when after he got out of jail. It’s a culmination of the initial arrest and incarceration, but also the events after his release. The publicity, the re-experiencing the trauma."
Jurors also heard from a relative in Florida, who Merritt moved in with in 2016.
She described the stress and trauma she witnessed in Merritt, after he decided to move away from aArizona and his children
"Mr. Merritt was not exaggerating the symptoms that he had," Dr. Hayes testified. "In fact, he was downplaying some of his symptoms."
Merritt is expected to take the stand in the case. State lawyers, meanwhile, could call incumbent DPS Director Heston Silbert to testify. Silbert was the person who made the final decision to arrest Merritt in 2015.
Shootings left Valley residents fearful of safety
No one was seriously injured when bullets struck eight cars in late August and early September of 2015. Three other vehicles were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. A 13-year-old girl was struck by glass in one of the attacks.
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.
Then-Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead had said the shootings were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.
Merritt arrested, later exonerated
Minutes after Merritt was arrested, Gov. Doug Ducey triumphantly tweeted, “We got him!”
Investigators from the Arizona Department of Public Safety had said Merritt’s handgun was linked to four of the shootings. But an outside forensic firearms examiner later said bullets from those shootings couldn’t be “excluded or identified” as having come from Merritt’s gun.
The judge presiding over Merritt’s lawsuit has said the firearms examiner and two other ballistics experts found insufficient evidence to link Merritt’s gun to the four shootings. No one else has been arrested in any of the shootings.
Merritt’s attorney, Jason Lamm, and Ed Novak, a lawyer representing Department of Public Safety employees in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case. A judge has barred attorneys from commenting on the arrest and the actions of investigators.
In his lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety, Merritt alleged 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 also 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 those allegations.
This summer, another judge took the rare step of issuing an order declaring that Merritt had been officially cleared of criminal allegations in the freeway shooting case.
Most of Merritt’s legal claims against the Department of Public Safety 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.
The judge presiding over Merritt’s lawsuit 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, county officials said.
The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday, Nov. 2.