Arizona highway shootings suspect released from custody
A man accused in a string of freeway shootings that terrorized the Phoenix area last year was released from custody after defense lawyers on Tuesday called the ballistics evidence into question.
Judge Warren Granville reduced the bail for Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., 21, to nothing from $150,000 after Merritt’s attorneys told an emergency hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court that an expert prosecution witness now said the reported ballistics match “does not exist.”
“There’s no evidence against him that he’s responsible for this,” defense attorney Jason Lamm told the court. “He is no more the I-10 freeway shooter than, respectfully, you are your honor.”
Granville ordered that Merritt wear an electronic monitoring device and report back to court on May 18.
A spokesman for the Maricopa County attorney’s office declined comment, citing a gag order in the case.
Merritt, a landscaper from the Phoenix area, had been held for about seven months on 15 criminal counts including drive-by-shooting and aggravated assault, for the first of four shootings along a 10-mile (16-km) stretch of Interstate 10 that passes through Phoenix.
Merritt told a judge at his initial court appearance last September that authorities had “the wrong guy,” and he has maintained his innocence in the case.
“I told you guys when I first got arrested I didn’t do it,” Merritt told reporters moments after his release from county jail around 6 p.m. local time. “Right now I just want to go home and be with my kids.”
Merritt’s bail originally had been set at $1 million but later was lowered to $150,000.
Merritt was the lone suspect tied to a spree of 11 shootings along the busy thoroughfare that left drivers fearful and unsettled throughout the area.
Only one person suffered a minor injury during the shootings before Governor Doug Ducey announced Merritt’s Sept. 18 arrest with an emphatic “We got him!” message on Twitter.
Police said they were able to “forensically link” four of the shootings to Merritt’s handgun, which was found later by investigators at a local pawn store.
A state police spokesman had said that bullets from the handgun discovered at the store were then matched to fragments found at some of the shooting scenes.
State police initially branded the case an act of “domestic terrorism,” but no such charges were brought by prosecutors. Authorities have not made public what they believe the motive was for the shootings.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Curtis Skinner, Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)