PRICE -- Scott Joseph Merrill believes he acted morally and lawfully when he gunned down Emery County road worker Charles W. Watterson while he graded a remote dirt road 12 miles south of Green River 16 months ago.
In a signed 7th District Court document, Merrill said he received an order from God to "deliver justice." He executed the order by hiding in some rocks above the San Rafael River Road and firing his .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle at Watterson as he passed below on his grader "until he was dead."Watterson, 62, married and the father of six children, was struck eight times.
Merrill, a 30-year-old from Spokane, Wash., did not explain how killing Watterson, whom he had never seen before that morning, Oct. 29, 1998, was justice.
Emery County prosecutors say Merrill shot Watterson so he could rob him. When arrested at a Green River motel the day after the killing, Merrill had in his possession personal items of Watterson's. Merrill admits in the court document that he robbed Watterson after he killed him.
Thursday, Merrill agreed in court not to contest the charge of aggravated murder, a capital offense. He said his religious beliefs conflict with Utah laws, but he recognizes his conduct constitutes a crime under those laws.
"However, in my mind, I received a commandment from God that superseded Utah law and did not believe that I was in a position to do anything but follow that command," Merrill said.
The no contest statement, which has the same effect as a guilty plea, satisfied a plea agreement with prosecutors. In exchange for the plea prosecutors dropped charges of aggravated robbery, criminal mischief and attempted escape from custody.
Had Merrill been convicted at trial of the charges he could have faced the death penalty or life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Under the plea agreement, however, prosecutors could only recommend a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole -- which was the sentence imposed Thursday by 7th District Judge Bryce K. Bryner.
"It certainly was a senseless and despicable act," Bryner said.
Watterson's family, about two dozen of whom attended Thursday's court hearing, had hoped Merrill would receive the same fate as their loved one. However, they also recognized that Merrill's mental illness could become a factor at trial, and life in prison might have been the end result anyway.
A psychologist testified Thursday that Merrill's illness is in remission since he began taking Zoloft, an antidepressant medication.
The difficult part of the agreement for Watterson's family is the chance that Merrill could someday be a free man. But the victim's family members said they'll be at every one of Merrill's Board of Pardons hearings to plead that he never gets out of prison.
"We were willing to do this because we were ensured that he will be in prison for a very long time," said Kim Scarbrough, one of Watterson's daughters.
Merrill's attorneys said the plea bargain was their client's best option and spared him a possible death sentence.
"We just wanted to give him the possibility of getting out of prison at some point, and this deal accomplishes that," attorney Ken Brown said.
Merrill became a suspect in the killing after footprints near Watterson's body and near a gun found by the murder scene matched footprints near the Super 8 Motel in Green River, where Merrill was staying. Detectives also found Merrill's driver's license and checkbook buried at an abandoned campsite near where Watterson was killed.