Harford couple sentenced to 22 years after guilty plea in son’s starvation death

Date: 2008-04-18
Source: examiner.com

Harford couple sentenced to 22 years after guilty plea in son’s starvation death

Matthew Santoni, The Examiner
2008-04-18 07:00:00.0

BALTIMORE - Donna and Samuel Merryman were each sentenced to 22 years in prison Thursday for the 2005 starvation death of their 9-year-old adopted son, Dennis. The Whiteford couple had pleaded guilty in February to child abuse resulting in death in exchange for the dismissal of murder charges and abuse charges related to their other children.

Relatives and members of the Merrymans’ church testified to their kindness and Christian values during the three-day sentencing hearing, and spoke of Dennis’  suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder that affected his relationships with others and physical problems that affected his abilty to digest food and grow.

 But two of the other six adopted and biological children testified to how the family had coped with his behavior by tying him down in a crib covered with bells and netting; medical records showed he had not seen a doctor for three and a half years; and doctors said that his vital organs were so stunted that some would be normal only for a 2-year-old child.

“Dennis was treated like a criminal — he was locked in his room; he was monitored  when he had to use the bathroom. ... He never wore clothes except for Sundays and holidays,” said one of Dennis’ sisters, whose identity was being withheld at prosecutors’ request. “When he was adopted, Dennis had no scars or bruises, but they multiplied.” She recounted an incident when Dennis was punished by being made to walk up and down stairs until he passed out and fell back down them.

The Merrymans knew that Dennis had physical and mental problems, but feared taking him to a doctor would lead to him being separated from the family, said Donna’s defense attorney, Andrew Alperstein. They made a mistake in not taking him, but their intent in adopting him and three other children was to rescue them from worse conditions, he said.

“I don’t think anyone believes the Merrymans adopted four children to kill one of them,” Alperstein said.

“They fell into the thinking that with only a little more time, they could fix the problem themselves,” said Craig Kadish, Samuel’s attorney. “But that thinking is like quicksand: The more you try to fix the problem, the deeper you sink.”

Prosecutors Diane Tobin and Lisa Marts had asked for the maximum sentence of 30 years, citing Dennis’ special vulnerability as a child and the harsh treatment he recieved.

“Instead of rescuing them from Russia, they brought them to a sort of hell in Harford County,” Tobin said.

Judge Emery Plitt sentenced them to 22 years without parole but gave them nearly three years of credit for time they have spent in home detention.

msantoni@baltimoreexaminer.com

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