Judge defers decision on Merrill plea agreement

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Chester resident and former middle school teacher Norman Merrill, charged with three felony counts related to creating and possessing child pornography, changed his not guilty plea on the count carrying the least penalty Tuesday morning, to guilty under an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Norman Merrill

However, U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss, who was overseeing the video hearing from Burlington, said she would defer a decision until she could review the case and see the sentencing memoranda.

On May 19, a federal grand jury in Burlington returned an indictment charging Merrill with production of child sexual abuse material, attempted production of child sexual abuse material and possession of child sexual abuse material. That third count carries the lowest minimum sentence of 10 years; the other two have a minimum to maximum sentence range of 15 to 30 years. Sentences are often served concurrently.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Reiss said the plea agreement calls for 10 years in prison and supervised release of not less than 10 years. But she said she would defer her decision on it because she did not know enough about Merrill and his case to determine whether that was the appropriate sentence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Ophardt told the judge that since it was below the mandatory minimum for the first two counts, that it would be appropriate for her to accept the agreement.

Saying that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had “no comment on this specific case,” a spokesperson added that “in general, if a defendant pleads guilty to one count of an indictment and is sentenced on that one count of conviction, the government may move to dismiss the remaining counts in the indictment at the end of the defendant’s sentencing hearing.”

Reiss said she would wait for the pre-sentence report, which is the result of an investigation by probation authorities along with sentencing memoranda from the government and the defense. She also told Merrill that if she were to reject the agreement, she would have to give him the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea after which he would return to being presumed innocent.

During the hearing, Reiss asked a number of questions concerning drug and alcohol use and mental illness. Merrill said he has not been using alcohol or drugs with one exception. Merrill told the judge he has been suffering from depression, was taking Wellbutrin and receiving counseling once every two weeks.  Reiss also asked about Merrill’s mental competence to enter the plea and whether he had read, discussed and understood the agreement. Merrill said he had.

She also explained that Merrill would have to deposit $50,000 with the clerk of the court to pay for assessments and to pay restitution to victims. In early May, during a search of Merrill’s home, Chester Police seized numerous electronic devices, including “pinhole cameras” and a “spy camera.”  A memory card seized from the residence revealed numerous voyeuristic images taken in a bathroom of  Merrill’s home.

Reiss explained how she would use sentencing guidelines and statutory factors to decide whether the sentence that the prosecution and defense had agreed upon was the correct one. She said she would calculate a sentencing range and that under “certain circumstances” the court would have the authority to increase or decrease the sentence.

The judge asked Ophardt to read the essential elements that the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Merrill at trial. These included his possession of visual depictions of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Reiss asked Merrill if he agreed that the government could prove that. He said yes.

Then Ophardt recounted that police searched Merrill’s house and found devices that contained media with surreptitious recordings made over multiple years in the bathroom of his home.

Asked if those facts were accurate, Merrill said yes.

Reiss set sentencing for 1 p.m. Monday April 24, 2023.

Related Articles

May 19: GM middle school teacher arrested on federal charges of creating child pornography

May 23: Merrill pleads not guilty, ordered to remain in custody

May 26: Fired by GMUSD board, Merrill awaits trial in jail

June 14: Judge denies Merrill motion for pre-trial release

June 22: Public records search of Merrill files turns up no complaints related to alleged behavior

Nov. 30: Hearing scheduled for Merrill plea change



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