Harford couple plead guilty

Date: 2008-02-26

Harford couple plead guilty

By Madison Park
Baltimore Sun

A Harford County couple accused of starving their 8-year-old adopted Russian son pleaded guilty yesterday to first-degree child abuse resulting in death.

Additional charges, including second-degree murder and four child-abuse charges, were dropped against Samuel Merryman, 40, and his wife, Donna Jean Merryman, 45, of Whiteford.

In January 2005, their youngest son, Dennis Gene Merryman, was found dead on his bedroom floor. At the time of his adoption from Russia in 2000, he was 4 years old, weighed 39 pounds and was 38 1/2 inches tall. At the time of his death four years later, he had lost 2 pounds, despite growing 3 inches, according to the Harford County prosecutor.

Medical examiners ruled his cause of death as starvation.

During yesterday's hearing, prosecutor Diane Adkins Tobin said Dennis had suffered from 'cruel and inhuman treatment.'

'The defendants were the adopted parents,' Tobin read from a statement of facts. 'Dennis Merryman had the injuries while in their care.'

The Merrymans' defense attorneys, Craig Kadish and Andrew Alperstein, said they could not comment until the April 15 sentencing. The Merrymans each face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

The couple's trial began last month but was recessed because of Samuel Merryman's medical problems. The trial was expected to resume today, but attorneys reached a plea agreement.

During the hearing, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. asked: 'Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?'

Both defendants replied, 'Yes.'

Since posting $50,000 bond each in August 2005, the Merrymans have been under house arrest, where they will remain until their sentencing.

The Rev. John A. Dekker, a pastor in Pylesville who presided over the Merrymans' wedding, said he was surprised by their plea.

Dennis had medical problems 'since he was born,' Dekker said. In 2005, relatives of the Merrymans told The Sun that Dennis had medical problems, including cystic fibrosis, rickets and digestive problems.

The couple home-schooled their three biological and four adopted children on a 6-acre Whiteford farm. After Dennis' death in January 2005, their remaining six children, ages 13 to 17, were taken from their custody. The parents have been permitted supervised, 90-minute visits with their children.

The four child-abuse charges that were dropped related to two of their daughters, the prosecutor said.

madison.park@baltsun.com

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