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Jury deliberates in robbery trial

by Matt Harvey

ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- A jury in the trial of a man charged with second-degree robbery in the alleged theft of more than $4,000 from Bridgeport's Bob Evans restaurant deliberated about two hours Wednesday without reaching a verdict.

The jury was to return to its work this morning in the trial of Clifford Merritt, 32, of Clarksburg. Merritt is accused of snatching a case of money from a Bob Evans worker just outside of Wal-Mart at New Pointe Plaza. The Bob Evans worker and his assistant manager were en route to deposit the money at United Bank inside the department store.

Harrison County Chief Circuit Judge John Lewis Marks Jr. is scheduled to again go over his instruction on "reasonable doubt" with jurors this morning. The jury had requested that instruction just before it left for the day, shortly after 6 p.m. A jury is not to convict unless it finds a defendant guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Jurors have been provided two very different versions of how the money was taken.

Defense attorney Hance Price spent much of Wednesday painting Merritt's view of the case. Price called both Merritt and Belinda Stonebreaker to the stand.

Stonebreaker also is charged with second-degree robbery in the case, and is to go on trial early next month.

Merritt and Stonebreaker testified they didn't commit the crime, and in fact were nowhere near Wal-Mart when it happened.

As an alibi, Merritt and Stonebreaker testified they were at the Pantry Store on Main Street in Salem about the time of the crime, where Merritt sought to buy cigarettes.

Merritt and Stonebreaker also testified about their other activities that day. And Price called witnesses earlier in the day in a bid to back up their statements. Two of those witnesses recalled seeing Merritt at the Pantry Store about 2:45 p.m. on April 23, the day the money was taken.

Assistant Prosecutor Kurt W. Hall earlier had set out the prosecution's version of events. His key witness was Kasey Thacker, 26, of Hepzibah, who was charged with second-degree robbery in the case but was granted immunity for testifying.

Thacker had testified on Tuesday that Stonebreaker and Merritt were the ones who thought up the crime. Stonebreaker, a childhood friend, threatened Thacker in order to gain Thacker's participation as provider and driver of the getaway vehicle, she testified.

Hall called other witnesses, including investigating officer Cpl. Robert Matheny of Clarksburg Police. Matheny also was on the stand early Wednesday before jurors looked at a Wal-Mart surveillance video of the incident.

In closing arguments, Hall told jurors that Thacker's version of events was the one that was more believable. He said the stories of Merritt, Stonebreaker and other defense witnesses had too many inconsistencies. And Hall said Merritt and Stonebreaker had enough time to snatch the money outside Wal-Mart, then rush to the Salem Pantry Store to create an alibi. He said that was part of their elaborate plan.

But Price said Thacker had the most to gain. She was caught "red-handed" by police with the getaway vehicle in the Kmart parking lot shortly after the crime, Price said. Thacker also lied before confessing, Price said. And he also put forth the theory that maybe Thacker committed the crime with others and simply pinned it on Stonebreaker and her boyfriend, Merritt, because Thacker had a grudge against Stonebreaker.

Jurors also Wednesday heard a brief tape of a call Merritt made to Harrison County's 911 center the day of the crime. Merritt was said to have made the call once he heard police were looking for Stonebreaker and him in connection with the crime. The tape seemed partially inaudible, and more than one juror had a quizzical look as it was played.

This marks the fourth recent trial against Merritt. He was acquitted in the first two trials, then convicted of breaking and entering in the third (although Price has filed seeking to overturn that verdict). Merritt faces a fifth trial later this year on a second-offense petit larceny charge, Hall said.

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