News

Scratches sealed fate: Marks of guilt etched on killer's face

Alexander James William Merritt was found guilty of the murder of Karin Ann Ross. Photo / Christine O'Connor
Alexander James William Merritt was found guilty of the murder of Karin Ann Ross. Photo / Christine O'Connor

WHILE Karin Ann Ross was being beaten to death, her final acts ensured her killer's guilt was etched into his face for all to see.

The scratches left on Alexander James William Merritt's face sealed his fate just as his frenzied hammer attack sealed his victim's.

A jury unanimously found him guilty yesterday in the face of overwhelming evidence and he will be locked up for life when he is sentenced on December 13. The only question facing Justice Nicholas Davidson will be how long before Merritt can apply for parole.

With her shift over at 12.36am on December 2, 2015, Ms Ross drove back to Spotless Cleaning Services' Strathallan St headquarters as she had hundreds of times in the 12 years she had worked for the company.

But on this occasion her colleague lay in wait for the 51-year-old supervisor.

They had butted heads in the preceding weeks.

Merritt had taken to parking his car in a disabled spot while cleaning at Otago Polytechnic and fellow employee Des Hurring said he ''flew off the handle'' when Ms Ross bailed him up about some lacklustre cleaning of windows.

The previous evening - only several hours before the victim was preparing to knock off - she gave the 21-year-old defendant a disciplinary letter detailing his perceived shortcomings, which would require a meeting with company bosses. In it, critically, was the threat of dismissal.

While Spotless regional operations manager Craig Soal told the court neither offence was serious enough to have Merritt sacked, the employee did not know this at the time.

Without his job there would be no money coming in to pay for the rebuild of his beloved Morris Minor, which he had thrown himself into with his father.

''She became the focus of his anger,'' Crown prosecutor Robin Bates said.

Consumed by rage, Merritt armed himself with a hammer, dressed himself in a dark size-14 woman's hoodie that he knew no-one could connect to him and drove from his Kaikorai home back to work. He knew Ms Ross would finish her shift before 1am.

During the two weeks he was on trial before the High Court at Dunedin, the Crown could not provide direct evidence of where the killer waited, for how long or how the attack progressed.

The physical injuries to the victim spoke volumes, though: 14 blunt-force lacerations to her scalp and 32 defensive injuries to her arms and hands.

But it was the injuries to Merritt that sealed the case for the Crown.

Ms Ross defended herself against the young assailant, flailing as he rained down blows on her with the hammer. The scratches gouged into his face and arms were inexplicable other than to finger him as the murderer.

Forensic testing of her fingernails also turned up DNA 430 times more likely to be from Merritt than anyone else.

He told his parents, colleagues and the police he had scratched himself in his sleep.

At trial, the court heard Merritt had eczema, which the defence put forward in a bid to give some validity to his story.

In an interview with police on December 4, he told Detective Graeme Smaill it had happened before.

''Last time, I noticed I had scratches on my back one time. I don't know how it happened. I presumed it happened in my sleep like this one. I just thought it was weird,'' Merritt told the officer.

The detective said: ''You've got short nails ... I'll just give you a second to maybe rethink that.''

But Merritt would not budge.

''I went to bed, didn't have any [scratches]; woke up, had some.''

Detective Smaill left the room to let the defendant dwell on his unconvincing response and came back five minutes later.

''You don't want to tell me the whole truth at the moment?'' he asked.

''No,'' Merritt told him.

Merritt showed no concern for the victim. When he showed up for work the day he killed Ms Ross, staff were reeling at the news.

His colleague, Aiden Kelsall, asked the defendant how he felt about their boss' death.

''I don't care. You know how I felt about her,'' Merritt said.

It was not the first time he had voiced his hatred for Ms Ross, according to Mr Kelsall.

After being publicly reprimanded, Merritt said he wanted to burn the woman's family alive in front of her.

''The lazy bitch. It would be fine if she died,'' he said several times, the court heard.

When given a chance to retract that when taken into the police station, Merritt refused.

''Sounds like something I'd say,'' he told Det Smaill.

And Merritt unflinchingly admitted he did not care Ms Ross was dead.

''A woman's just lost her life and you don't care she's dead, because she spoke to you rudely?''

''Yeah.''

Further to evidence about their deteriorating relationship, the prosecution put forward a substantial amount of forensic evidence.

The bloody murder scene did little to help the Crown peg the killer, though it portrayed the brutality of the attack.

''Spines of blood'' radiating out from the victim's head suggested she had been smashed with the hammer while she lay face down in the car park, Mr Bates said.

A bloody hand print on a van door showed the killer had pulled Ms Ross from the driver's seat as she tried to escape.

But no DNA testing was done on anything at the scene.

On December 4, police executed a search warrant at the Merritt family home at 4 Nairn St. Over four days they combed every room and the outside of the property.

Blood found on the bathroom tap and vanity, which was classed as extremely likely to be from Ms Ross, was a significant discovery but the breakthrough came on the final day of the search.

Officers opened up the yellow-lidded council wheelie bin at the back of the house to find three pizza boxes, some plastic bottles and old newspapers.

Under them was a dark item of clothing.

''It was immediately obvious there was some sort of small, rubber-handled tool'' poking out of a pocket, Constable Karl O'Dowda told the court.

Later inspection turned up a glove in another pocket with ''A'' embroidered on the cuff.

Each member of the Merritt family denied they were familiar with the items but the coincidence between the stitched capital letter and the defendant's first name did not escape Mr Bates.

''You might think it's something a mother might do to identify a set of gloves,'' he told the jury.

More convincing was what was found on the blood-covered items. Forensic testing showed cells on them were one million million times more likely to be Ms Ross' DNA than anyone else's.

While the slightly bent tack hammer might have provided courtroom theatre, the invisible evidence on the hoodie tied Merritt to the killing.

A swab showed there was another DNA profile also present on the garment, which was 500,000 million times more likely to belong to him than anyone else.

The defence argued it could have been transferred from anything in the wheelie bin that had Merritt's sweat, saliva or skin cells on it.

The bin had sat there for 62-½ hours before the police secured the area, Mrs Stevens said. Anyone could have dumped the items there.

But the coincidences were too much. For the defence's story to have credibility it needed someone with a reason to kill Ms Ross and frame the defendant.

There was no-one.

Merritt told police he got home just after 9.30pm on December 1 and was in bed between midnight and 1am. He got up at 9.30am the next day, he said.

But his cellphone told a different story.

At 1.34am, when the killer was probably heading home after the murder, Merritt's phone pinged off the Dunedin North cell tower, located on the corner of Hanover and Great King Sts.

The Crown called Spark expert Lawrence Watson to explain the significance of the data.

As part of his investigation, he drove three routes from Strathallan St to Nairn St while monitoring two phones' activities. He concluded the only way Merritt's phone could have connected with the Dunedin North cell site was if it was located on Highgate or on the city side of that road.

Radio waves, Mr Watson explained, could not bend. For Merritt's phone to use that tower from his house, the waves would need to bend almost 90 degrees.

Over a gruelling nine days of evidence, Ms Ross' family sat at the back of the court as they heard lawyers and witnesses pick their way through the details of her death.

After repeatedly reliving the ordeal, the victim's partner, Richard Leckie, said it was ''perfectly obvious'' what had happened.

He did not want to go on record with a gushing tribute to Ms Ross, saying simply: ''The people that need to know, know.''

''Nobody will ever forget Karin. Dunedin will never forget Karin.''

- Otago Daily Times

Topics:  murder new zealand



Science Festival seriously awesome

CALLING everyone who wants to see, hear and be a part of something totally cool: this is where you need to be this March.

Drink where the cool kids do this summer

There are a bunch of new bars open in Brisbane, make sure you're there!

CHECK out these new funky bars.

Discover Brisbane’s laneway gems

Brisbane's laneways will surprise you.

NOT all of Brisbane City is as it seems…

Top five things to experience this summer in Brisbane

Tangalooma is amazing if you're keen for a dive, kayak or swim.

THIS summer get out and explore your capital city.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls…find them on these drives!

The Scenic Rim is just one place nearby that you'll love.

BRISBANE isn’t all bright lights and city slickers.

Your boots are made for walking these tours

Brisbane Greeters tours are a great way to learn the local history of the city.

YOU don’t need a bike or bus for a seriously good tour of Brisbane.

Is Brisbane the new arts and culture capital?

Check out GOMA's latest exhibition - it's all about hair! GOMA 10 Ambassador Patience Hodgson visits Nervescape V 2016 by Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter), commissioned for ‘Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. 
Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

THE rest of the world should be envious of this line-up!

Tin Can Bay's new dolphin baby

NEW LIFE: Tin Cay's wild dolphin interaction program has moved on another generation with the birth of this new dolphin baby, pictured with mum, Ella, at Norman Point.

New baby dolphin has volunteers enraptured

Dog attack costs owner $1500

ATTACK: A man has been fined over a dog attack at Inskip Point.

Man ordered to pay mroe than $1500 over an Inskip Point dog attack

Gympie police probe mobile CBD assaults

MOBILE TROUBLE: A confrontation involving what police describe as "a number of males” seems to have migrated through the CBD early this morning.

Fight roams through Gympie CBD

Local Partners

Startups get a leg up in Gympie region

ENTREPRENEURS and innovators in the Gympie region will benefit from an innovative program being launched next Wednesday at the Gympie RSL from 7am.


How Stay at Home Mum blogger Jody Allen struck it big

Jody Allen and Walt Collins will co-host the Seven Network's Stay at Home Mum television series from April.

Jody Allen's star continues to rise at incredible speed

Big effort by volunteers at little Widgee

MANY HANDS: They're always helping with something out Widgee way. Volunteers braved last weekend's heatwave to help get the showgrounds ready for the April campdraft and, on Wednesday, yet more community-minded folk headed off to Widgee Craft Group to get things under way for the group's morning tea for cancer later this year. Among them were (from left) Judy Houben, Christine Schulz and Lynlie Cross who were snapped working on their Australia's Biggest Morning Tea quilt.

Volunteers get showgrounds into shape for campdraft

Tensions high at pointy end of MKR's round two

WHEN an ex-vegan pacifist says "I think people that score strategically need a kick in the shins”, the MKR gloves are off.

Jungle Jay sent packing from I'm a Celebrity

I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Here! contestant Jay Laga'aia with Keira.

BIG friendly giant Jay Laga'aia has been eliminated from I'm A Celeb

Carson Kressley brings 'camp' to I'm a Celebrity jungle

"I am not all Park Avenue and daffodils” ... Carson Kressley.

Meet the "campest” campmate to star on I'm a Celebrity.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi mystery already solved

FILE- This undated file photo provided by Disney shows Daisey Ridley as Rey, left, and John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from the film, \"Star Wars: The Force Awakens.\" Hasbro said it is changing its Star Wars Monopoly set after an 8-year-old girl became upset that Rey, the movie's female heroine, was not included as a figure along with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. (Disney/Lucasfilm via AP, File) MANDATORY CREDIT

A key mystery surrounding the title of episode eight has been solved

Kids' game "full of f**king paedophiles" according to dad

A mortified dad has expressed serious concerns over an online game

Lisa Marie Presley's ex caught with child pics: court

Lisa Marie Presley, at right, and her husband, Michael Lockwood back in 2010. FILE

Lisa Marie, 49, claimed she was left “sick to her stomach”

Robert Irwin introduces Jimmy Fallon to wild guests

Robert Irwin introduces Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon to a cuddly sloth.

ROBERT Irwin continues Steve's legacy.

50 more high rise buildings planned for Brisbane CBD

Height limits have been scrapped for Brisbane CBD

800,000 more people expected to work in city over next 20 years

Expert: Why renters, home buyers may struggle

Matusik Property Insights director Michael Matusik.

What's next for the city's housing market

New suburb in the crosshairs of Coast vandals

UNDER WRAPS: Graffiti on art installations at the entrance to the newly opened Bells Creek Arterial Road has been covered up.

Vandal rechristens Stockland as something less than complimentary

What $11.9m can get you on Coast's most exclusive street

29-31 Wyuna Drive Noosaville Qld 4566

This is what a cool $11.9m can get you

How a first home buyer built house with no deposit

NEARLY THERE: Construction on the first house to home orphans at Umoja began in January.



Photo Contributed

His home will be completed later this year.

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!