New DA sets aggressive goals

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 13, 2011

As Walt Merrell prepares to take the oath of office as Covington County’s DA next week, he has set aggressive prosecution goals.

First, he said, he plans to clear each of the five murder cases pending on the docket.

“It sounds daunting, but it’s really not,” Merrell said. “Most of them are pretty well open and shut cases. I know that the investigators have done their jobs, and the cases ought to be solid and ready to go. We’re going to address those all in short order.

“For a victim’s family to wait years to have a case brought forward somehow distorts justice,” he said.

Merrell has previously represented two of the men who stand accused of murder – Michael D. Barbaree and David Wiltshire – and said he’s already asked the attorney general’s office to prosecute those.

“They have expressed a readiness to move on both cases,” he said.

Barbaree has confessed to the May 2009 murder of Travis Sasser and the attempted murder of his wife, Merita, who has since died. The Sassers’ caregiver arrived for work and found the house on fire with the couple still inside. Travis Sasser had been beaten to death; his wife was rescued from a bedroom and was airlifted from the scene to be treated for smoke inhalation. Barbaree is charged with capital murder.

Wiltshire was charged with two counts of murder in a March 2007 traffic accident that claimed the lives of two women, one of whom was a passenger in his vehicle.

Other murder cases on the docket include:

• John Curtis Davis, who is charged with capital murder in the 2010 death of his 4-year-old nephew in Opp. Davis, who has confessed, shot the child with a pellet gun.

• Bobby Wayne Copeland, charged with murder and domestic violence in the July 3, 2009, death of his wife, Dorothy Cravey Copeland, in the North Creek community.

• Harold Elton Todd, charged with murder in the March 29, 2008, shooting death of his live-in girlfriend, Veronica Elizabeth Martinez. The couple lived in the Beulah community.

A simultaneous priority, Merrell said, will be to reduce the backlog of cases currently on the docket. First, he expects that docket to get larger.

“In the December session of the grand jury, there were 270 counts that were continued over to March, which will make March probably the biggest grand jury anybody’s ever seen,” he said. “There are already 330 or so pending in circuit court. One of the cases is an ‘05 case, The case, which is a DUI, took five years to get indicted. We have no business taking this long.”

By comparison, he said, Conecuh County has less than 100 cases pending on the felony docket.

“Granted, they have a population of 16,000 to 17,000 people,” Merrell said.

“We’re about twice the size, but have three times as many cases.”

He’d like to get the case load down to 100 cases. To jumpstart that effort, he has already talked to prosecutors from neighboring agencies and a judge if they will all come and help with what he’s calling “a rocket docket.”

“We need to see if we can knock that number down,” he said.

Although it sounds daunting, he’s confident.

“It can be fixed,” he said. “It can be straightened out.”

He and his staff will get a chance to try very soon. Merrell will be sworn in Tuesday morning. Trial week begins the following Monday.

“We have done everything we can to get as ready as you can possibly be without being in there,” he said.