A Calhoun County judge said Monday he will likely request a colleague from outside the area hear a case against an Anniston attorney charged in an alleged murder-for-hire plot.
Circuit Judge Brian Howell said during a Monday bond hearing for the defendant, Matthew Merrill, that because the defendant practiced law inside the courthouse, Howell would have to recuse himself in the case soon. Howell said he would likely do so once he rules on Merrill’s bond later in July.
“Once we request a judge, it could take weeks or months before we get that,” Howell told the court.
Merrill, 32, was indicted by a Calhoun County grand jury May 9, charged with soliciting another man, Gerald Anton Griffin, to kill Patrick Thomas McCarroll, according to the grand jury indictment. Merrill’s involvement in the plot took place between Jan. 1, 2008, and April 1, 2014, according to the indictment.
Griffin, 30, of Mount Meigs, pleaded guilty in 2012 to two counts of first- degree robbery, and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He was at the St. Clair Correctional Facility near Springville on Monday, prison records show.
Griffin, formerly of Oxford, was indicted by a Calhoun County grand jury in 2008 in connection with the shooting death of Broderick Few in Hobson City on April 1, 2008. The state later declined to prosecute that case.
Anniston police investigator Shaun Firestone told the court Monday that during a May 4 traffic stop, police found a notebook in Merrill’s car that details his alleged attempt to pay Griffin $10,000 to kill his former girlfriend’s current boyfriend.
Court records show that the conditions of Merrill’s release include having no contact with Patrick McCarroll, Lindsey Ghee or her immediate family. Ghee is a daughter of Anniston attorney and former state Sen. Doug Ghee.
Firestone told the court Monday that when asked about the notebook, Merrill told police that “it was just a joke. It was nothing serious.” Griffin later verified the information in that notebook with investigators, Firestone said.
Merrill sat quietly in court Monday, wearing a jail-issued orange and white-striped uniform with the words “Mr. not guilty” apparently handwritten in black across the back.
Merrill’s attorney, Bill Broome, asked the judge to lower Merrill’s bond on the murder solicitation charge from $500,000 to $50,000. Broome also asked that Merrill be placed in an inpatient drug and alcohol abuse facility under GPS monitoring. Broome told the court that he made the bond reduction request because Merrill’s family cannot afford to pay the $500,000.
Merrill also has a separate $100,000 bond for charges including possession of a controlled substance, illegal possession of prescription drugs and public drunkenness related to the traffic stop, court records show.
Since his arrest, however, prosecutors allege that Merrill has tried to solicit fellow inmates in the Calhoun County Jail to kill people, and that reducing his bond would place the public in danger.
Firestone said an inmate told police that while in jail together, Merrill told the inmate that if Merrill were released on bond, he’d get out and “handle the situation himself.”
That inmate threatened to discuss the matter with police, he alleged, and was later assaulted by other inmates, Firestone said.
A second inmate told investigators that Merrill told him about the murder-for-hire plot, Firestone said, and “began hinting around that if this guy disappeared it would be worth $50,000.”
Firestone said a third inmate said that Merrill offered him $20,000 to kill two men Merrill believed could testify to Merrill’s drug use. The two men named in that murder-for-hire plot declined to press additional charges against Merrill, Firestone told the court.
Broome asked Firestone if the third inmate had asked investigators if he could be released if he told police who the two men targeted in the other plot were, and Firestone said he had, adding that it’s common for inmates to ask for something in return for information, Firestone said. Broome said the inmate was later released from jail.
Court records show that third inmate pleaded not guilty in December 2013 to a charge of selling narcotics. On July 8 that inmate pleaded guilty to the drug charge. That same day prosecutors recommended he be placed in a community corrections program, which a judge approved, according to court records. He was later released from jail and required to serve a four-and-a-half year sentence in the community corrections program and complete an inpatient drug treatment program.
Merrill on June 19 pleaded not guilty to the murder solicitation charge. On July 1 the court ordered Merrill to undergo a mental evaluation.
That evaluation is expected to be complete in late July, Howell said.
“Until I get that report, I’ll take all this under advisement,” Howell said.