Witnesses defend parents guilty of abusing son

Date: 2008-04-16
Source: Baltimore Sun

One by one, friends and co-workers stepped into the witness stand and told the judge how Samuel and Donna Merryman are very giving.

They talked of the loans the Whiteford couple, parents of seven children, made to those in need. How Samuel Merryman repaired homes and roofs, for free, for struggling or disabled families.

And when each witness was done, the prosecutor offered a reply: an autopsy photograph of the 8-year-old son who had starved to death. Dennis Gene Merryman's jawbones and cheekbones jutted from his face, and his ribs protruded from his skeletal body.

Prosecutor Diane Adkins-Tobin asked whether one could call parents who allowed their child to deteriorate like that kind and loving.

Prosecutors are asking Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. to sentence the Merrymans, who pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in their adopted son's death, to the maximum 30 years each in prison. The sentencing is expected to continue until Thursday.

In January 2005, Dennis was found dead on his bedroom floor. He weighed 37 pounds, and medical examiners determined the cause of death to be starvation, according to court documents.

In February of this year, Samuel Merryman, 40, and his wife, Donna Jean Merryman, 45, each pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse. Charges of second-degree murder and four counts of child-abuse were dropped.

'There's no disputing what he looked like,' defense attorney Andrew Alperstein said yesterday. 'How did people so giving and caring not realize what's going on with the child?'

Alperstein said the Merrymans were looking into a facility where Dennis could receive care.

'They had a plan, and it wasn't in time,' Alperstein said. 'They're not doctors, and they came into this not understanding what had happened. They admitted to this crime and want the court to understand the context. The child had a sickness.'

Dennis came to the country with medical problems stemming from his time at a Russian orphanage, including what doctors believed to be rickets and a 'monkey-like gait' caused by a vitamin deficiency, Alperstein said. He was the youngest of four Russian siblings adopted by the Merrymans in 2000.

'They didn't fly across the world to adopt four kids to kill them,' Alperstein said. 'They knew when the kids came here they had medical problems. They didn't know about the psychological issues, but they accepted this responsibility.'

Yesterday, friends, family and church members packed the courtroom, some even waiting in the hallway, to testify about the couple's good deeds.

One witness, Joan Rineholt, talked about how she became friends with Donna Merryman at church.

'I wouldn't hesitate to have them sit with my kids if I had any young kids,' she said.

Tobin asked the witnesses whether they noticed that Dennis wasn't growing. Some said Dennis had 'looked fine.' Others said they never realized that he wasn't growing because they 'didn't pay attention to Dennis.'

Tobin handed the witnesses three photos, showing Dennis after he died and at the medical examiner's office.

'The picture looks bad, but I don't believe they did anything wrong,' said Roger Teague, a witness.



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