Most charges dropped in theft, pursuit
HUNTINGTON — Nineteen charges related to a series of tire thefts that triggered a high-speed chase through Huntington in December have been dismissed.
That chase ended with a crash involving the cruiser of a sheriff's deputy who was pursuing the suspect and two uninvolved motorists.
The dismissed charges were misdemeanor counts against Anthony Scott Merritt, a Huntington man in his mid-30s who was accused of stealing spare tires from nine vehicles between Dec. 3 and Dec. 6.
Defense and prosecuting attorneys said Thursday negotiations are under way to include a felony fleeing charge related to the high-speed chase as part of a plea agreement in an unrelated September 2012 burglary. But their comments and a review of court records provide less certainty as to further prosecution of the spare tire thefts.
The police chase happened about 3:40 p.m. as rush hour traffic began to accumulate on Dec. 6, 2012, on 5th Avenue in Huntington. City police had spotted a man stealing a parked vehicle's spare tire and began to pursue the suspect from a distance. Moments later, the same assailant ran a stop sign, prompting a Cabell County sheriff's deputy to initiate a pursuit of his own when the suspect refused to stop.
Early speeds reached 77 miles per hour in West Huntington, before the chase decelerated drastically as the suspect led the pursuing deputy and city officers into downtown. The deputy's cruiser collided with two intersecting motorists, both of whom had the green light at 5th Avenue and 10th Street. The suspect got away at that point, but Merritt was arrested later and accused of the crimes.
Cabell County Magistrate Court records show 23 charges, related to either the chase or stolen tires, were dismissed April 26 for a failure to prosecute. A need for further investigation was additionally noted in three counts related to the chase and one count of property destruction.
The misdemeanors were to have been placed back into rotation and dealt with on the court's misdemeanor docket, according to assistant prosecutor Jara Howard and public defender Virginia Weed. But a check of records midday Thursday found each of those cases were dismissed, and nothing had been refiled.
Howard, dealing with Circuit Court issues at the time of the April 26 hearing, was unaware the misdemeanors had been dismissed until Friday morning. She said they could be refiled in Magistrate Court or included in what could become a felony fleeing indictment in Circuit Court, although a final move had not been determined.
"My original offer was never to have all of those misdemeanors wiped out with one felony plea," she said. "It was that they were to be handled separately and whatever victims showed up would be entitled to restitution and that type of thing."
The dismissals came amid opposing motions in Magistrate Court. The prosecution sought dismissal for further investigation, while the defense cried foul, saying it was a move to strip Merritt of his right to a preliminary hearing after repeated delays and failed attempts to resolve the case.
Magistrate Johnny McCallister sided with the defense. He signed a jail release dismissing all of the December charges and cover sheets that state a "failure to prosecute."
Howard's initial plan was to consolidate the December police chase with a plea agreement in Circuit Court, all while leaving the tire thefts to be decided in Magistrate Court. She said any ruling as to Merritt's right to a preliminary hearing should have had no impact on the tire cases, as misdemeanor defendants do not possess the same right to such a hearing.
The proposed plea agreement would have resolved both Merritt's alleged role in the pursuit and an indictment that charges him with burglary, grand larceny and transferring stolen property in the September 2012 case from the 2100 block of Pleasant View Drive. He rejected that deal, and his side extended a counteroffer of its own, according to comments made at a Thursday morning appearance before Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson.
Weed said the counteroffer involves a misdemeanor plea to resolve the Pleasant View Drive case and a felony concerning the pursuit.
Both sides will meet again June 12 for another pretrial hearing concerning the Pleasant View Drive burglary indictment. In the meantime, both attorneys said Howard would be contacting the victim in the burglary case to consider another offer.
"I'm not going to make a misdemeanor offer," Howard said in regard to charges alleged in the indictment.
Ferguson also rejected a defense motion for placing Merritt on home confinement Thursday, citing a fugitive from justice warrant from Pennsylvania. Howard told the court officials in Pennsylvania would extradite once the Cabell County cases are resolved.
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