- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) - A California man charged with killing a family of four whose bodies were found buried in the desert can represent himself in court, a judge ruled Friday.

Charles “Chase” Merritt, 57, asked to act as his own lawyer in the hope of speeding up proceedings because he has congestive heart failure, said Robert Ponce, his former attorney. He said the case also was causing financial trouble for Merritt and his family.

“He doesn’t have an actual time frame as to how good his condition is going to be in six to eight months,” Ponce told reporters after a hearing, adding that he would have needed that much time to prepare for a preliminary hearing. “He’s just scared to death that he’s not going to make it.”

Merritt has pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder in the deaths of Joseph McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; and their children, 4-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Joseph Jr. The family disappeared from their San Diego County home in 2010, and their bodies were discovered by an off-road driver in shallow graves in San Bernardino County in November 2013.

Merritt, who was McStay’s business associate, was arrested last year. Authorities still have not revealed what led them to Merritt.

In court on Friday, Merritt told the judge that he had two years of college, worked as a manufacturing designer and wanted to represent himself despite warnings that it was considered a foolish decision.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith granted the request but asked for written approval from Merritt’s doctor saying his medical condition would not be a problem. Smith set a preliminary hearing for April 7.

Smith also denied news media requests to unseal documents in the case, claiming that releasing the information could compromise the investigation by law enforcement and jeopardize Merritt’s due process rights.

“If that information were released now and made public, basically it would be one-sided and might very well make it very difficult for the defense to later remove the taint of that evidence,” Smith said.

More than a dozen news organizations, including The Associated Press, had argued that San Bernardino County authorities can’t keep case documents sealed because it is now a prosecution and not an investigation.

The motion asked the judge to release search warrants, affidavits and statements of probable cause related to the investigation. Prosecutors and defense attorneys opposed unsealing the documents.

Prosecutors said they expect to release the records by the preliminary hearing.

Search warrants unsealed last week in San Diego County showed that police there found a tall lamp lying on a bedroom floor and open suitcases containing folded clothes in the walk-in closet of the McStays’ home.

Two bowls of slightly spilled popcorn were on a living room couch and a carton of raw eggs and bowl of microwave popcorn were left on a kitchen counter.


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